UPDATE: March 4, 2022: This story has been updated to include information about WPP's intentions to wind down operations in Russia, which were announced shortly after publishing.
Consumers want brands to take concrete measures addressing Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a reflection of growing public awareness of the influence companies wield over major global events and widespread concern over the conflict. Despite these expectations, marketers should not rush to wave their flag around a situation that is fast-moving and highly sensitive — though many organizations may have already learned that lesson following two years marked by society-wide crises.
Still, the marketing industry is taking action. Already, a number of marketers and service providers have cut back or stopped doing business in Russia while industry event Cannes Lions said it will exclude Russians from this year's festival. In one of the most substantial developments for the advertising industry, agency giant WPP said Friday it plans to discontinue operations in Russia. The group has about 1,400 employees in the country.
"Everybody's in a big emotional place," said Kate Muhl, vice president analyst at Gartner's marketing practice. "The messages that they are looking for are: Support for people in Ukraine, peace, and to some degree, resources. But [talking about] what you specifically are doing, it's just too soon."
A survey Gartner conducted found that most U.S. respondents were concerned about the Ukraine crisis, with eight in 10 naming at least one step they would like to see marketers take. At the top of the list was reconsidering doing business in Russia or with Russian partners, cited by 60%. Other leading recommendations included ensuring the safety of personnel in regions embroiled in the fighting (55%), minimizing disruptions that could affect product supply and pricing (46%) and preparing emergency measures in case the U.S. is more directly impacted (46%). Sixteen percent of consumers said they don't think brands should do anything in regards to Ukraine. Gartner polled 281 consumers between Feb. 25 and March 1 for its research.
"We now have mainstream consumers who have awareness of the idea of corporate governance, supply chain operations," said Muhl. "That awakening, I think we see it applied here."
Lower on the ranking of desired responses were brands donating aid (31%), making a public statement (13%) and pausing or pulling back on marketing activity (11%) — tactics that all fall much closer to the CMO purview. Weaker demand for traditional communications combined with a clear pressure to take some sort of meaningful action puts marketers in a bit of a bind in the near term, but they should still be strategizing for a moment where receptiveness to consumer-facing messaging is higher.
"It's tricky, because you've got to be able to tell people about the things you're doing at a time when they say that they want you to do those things more than they want you to talk about those things," said Muhl.
The current focus on practical measures, including safeguarding employees in Ukraine, is indicative of a larger shift in what consumers perceive as effective action from brands, according to Muhl.
The idea that corporations are more capable of enacting change than individuals and even governments has taken hold over several years, notably around issues like climate change. It came even further to the forefront first with the pandemic and then mass protests for racial justice in the U.S. in 2020. Both instances served as examples of a paradigm shift where consumers applied greater scrutiny to brands, with many companies finding out the hard way that they had to live up to the standards shared in their marketing internally or face backlash.
A similar principle applies to the Ukraine conflict, while carrying different nuances.
"The fact that wanting messages is so far down the list does make it different than what we saw with [Black Lives Matter] and what we saw with COVID," said Muhl of the Gartner research. "That doesn't mean it will always be that way."
"If we have, say, Russia, unleashing cyberattacks that have a direct impact on Americans, you're in a whole different ball game," she added.
But if the biggest agenda item consumers have for now is brands reconsidering doing business in Russia, then many seem to be meeting the moment. Netflix, Ikea, Ford, Apple and Disney are among the consumer brands that have started to peel back Russian operations. Services providers like Accenture, BCG and McKinsey are similarly making a swift exit from the country.
Exclusionary tactics are also becoming common. Cannes Lions, advertising's most significant awards festival, announced in a statement it would not accept submissions or delegations from Russian groups this year. It will waive charges for Ukrainian creatives in attendance and refund those who cannot make the show.
There are more extreme cases as well. Some establishments are dumping out what they believe to be Russian vodka — even though few spirits sold in the U.S. are actually distilled there — or renaming menu items like Moscow Mules and White Russians to be Ukrainian-themed, summoning the specter of the "Freedom fries" push that emerged in the U.S. after France declined to participate in the Iraq war.
Whether or not these are just moves for companies to make is debatable. What's not up for debate is that CMOs — and other members of the C-suite — will need to keep a close ear to the ground to be able to adjust course as the situation evolves and avoid a botched communication.
"This is moving very rapidly," said Mulh. "I don't think that it would be wise for marketers to say, therefore, we shouldn't say anything."
Ear to the ground
Closer executive collaboration and transparency, mandates driven by the pandemic, have benefited some brands amid ongoing volatility. They have not necessarily made marketers' jobs any easier, as CMOs must be on the ball with operations outside of their usual remit, including the supply chain and employee welfare.
"That actually can make it more complex because you now have the machine works in place to activate immediately," said Muhl. "You now are agile, and with great power comes great responsibility. You have to be thoughtful: What are my brand's values? Where are my exposures as a brand?"
If and when a stronger consumer-facing platform becomes appropriate, the pandemic carries other lessons as well, according to Muhl.
"What we've learned through COVID is that it's very easy to hit a kind of message fatigue. It's important to recognize that these crises are not experienced in a monolithic way," she said. "There needs to be more than one message and it should be folded into a range of other things that you're saying."