Russian warship go f*ck yourself: Should your brand take a stand during war?

Russian warship go f*ck yourself: Should your brand take a stand during war? | Screenshot from Crocoblock website | Talked About Marketing

It's a luxurious question for marketers here in Australia and other parts of the West, should your brand take a stand during war?

For businesses, workers, and families in Ukraine, they have immediate survival needs top of mind and no time for following style guides about font size, let alone whether or not their brand would swear or not.

This thought arose when I visited the website of one of our services providers, Crocoblock, a website plugin provider based in Ukraine.

Across the top of their website is, at the time of writing, a bold blue and gold banner, capturing the defiant words that hit the news headlines in the early days of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine when locals told a Russian warship to leave it alone (in rather forceful and colourful language); "Russian warship, go f*ck yourself!"

There are very few companies whose brand style guides would adopt such language but there are very few companies where employees have no idea whether or not their building will be struck by a missile killing them and/or their colleagues at any minute. NOTE: Various sources suggest there are about 40 conflicts impacting many other parts of the world, too.

What the Covid pandemic had brazenly made us realise and now this Russian war is making us brutally realise, we are one people on one planet and the butterfly effect of all our actions WILL and DO echo around the world.

Our short words to the Crocobloc team

We sent a brief message of support to the Crocobloc team. It is merely a little token but it is something that doesn't happen much in this age of cloud-based, globally-distributed businesses.

Hi team. This is not a support request. I just wanted to say that our little team here in Adelaide, Australia, is right behind Ukraine and we are disgusted by Russia's evil invasion of your country. We hope you can survive well and prosper and we hope our western allies in the EU are able to support you better.

Covid taught us that the people who do the actual "doing" work are the truly essential workers and all of us should remember to be respectful to everybody.

Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine reminds us that world events can and will crash in and impact people we know, and sometimes us.

In high school physics, to keep things simple, teachers often tell us to assume experiments are taking place in a vacuum. A lot of branding decisions seem to happen in this context, without regard to the impact of "reality".

And that's been okay in much of the West but recent events are shaking those brittle foundations and reminding us there is no ideal, hermetically-sealed bubble in which our brands operate. Life bleeds into every nook and cranny of existence, world wide.

When you need to flee bombing, I'm sure you don't ponder whether you should choose a BMW 318 or 320 to make sure you are projecting a sign of success. There would be an instant resetting of what's really important.

It follows then that in times of upheaval like these, good brands (and the people behind them) will adapt and adjust as appropriate.

Some extreme examples of genuine engagement by brands, cited in Ritson's article include:

  • Vodafone, BT and Three telecommunication companies making calls between the UK and Ukraine free
  • Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest brewer, quickly adapting its production lines to make cans of drinking water
  • Carlsberg in Ukraine making all bottles freely available to people who need them to make particularly explosive kinds of cocktails
  • Elon Musk responding to Ukraine’s vice president Mykhailo Fedorov and making his Starlink satellite internet service active in Ukraine

At the same time, wise heads among us note that nobody wins if we sink in despondency and focus only on a war on the other side of the world.

Oliver Burkeman, author of 4000 Weeks, quoted in an earlier article, A marketer’s search for meaning: Time to decide what’s important, wrote in his recent newsletter, The Imperfectionist, that the options of diving into news fully or ignoring it completely for "self-care" are both broken approaches. Instead, he counsels us during times like these to adjust our default state, "so that the news once again becomes something you dip into for a short while, then out of again – as opposed to a realm in which you spend most of your day, only sometimes managing to wrench back enough concentration to live your actual life."

The blogger David Cain has written eloquently of his longing to put the internet "back in a box in the basement": not quitting it in some ostentatious act of techno-rejection, but using it, on his own terms, then stepping away from it afterwards, preferably by means of "a big mechanical switch to shut it all off when I'm done with it." This, I'd say, should be our aspiration with the news as well: to check in on it a couple of times a day. To take any relevant concrete actions you can, such as donating to Ukraine. And then to step away and move on.

What's right for you? I can't tell you. But I'm sure the world will benefit from all of us giving thought to our positions and then acting as we deem fit.

Should your brand take a stand? Only if it's authentic!

There have been some good articles in the past few days, in which other marketers have reflected thoughtfully on how ephemeral marketing and branding talk can sound during times of life and death.

While brands continuing with just the same old messaging and advertising about the little indulgences of life can come across as tone deaf, there is a rightful suspicion of brands that suddenly drench everything in blue and gold to show solidarity with Ukraine.

As Mark Ritson wrote in his Marketing Week article, At times of war marketing is rendered superficial and ridiculous:

Just as Black Lives Matter highlighted a host of companies that were big on blacked out logos but not so big on black faces in the boardroom, the superficial side of marketing saw yellow and blue cover a heap of hot air.

This is not to say that brands shouldn't show signs of solidarity with Ukraine but what it does do is highlight how many of us do not know what "authentic" communication means for our brands.

Of course, our brands are ultimately distilled and set in the minds and memories of our beholders (the people who make up our markets).

When next we get psychological and physical breathing space, perhaps we could dedicate some effort to deliberately discerning and developing the internal purpose and values set by which our brand will operate.

And in light of the latest rounds of lessons from the school of hard knocks, we'll be sure that our presence and demeanour in the world will respect not only customers and staff, but also our suppliers, no matter where they live and work in the world.

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