The fallout from Brunei’s new laws – Brands and social values in the 21st century

In 2014 the Sultan of Brunei announced new strict laws that would be gradually rolled out, with the most recent phase of the implementation including laws that would punish adultery and homosexual sex with death. Following mass media attention and an outcry led by celebrities worldwide, companies with affiliations to the Sultan of Brunei face a reputational crisis. Despite a recent announcement by the Sultan that the death penalty for such acts would not be carried out, companies with ties to the Sultan are being impacted severely with businesses and PR agencies boycotting them. Here’s what companies can learn about their brand positioning on social issues from this case study.


Be on the right side of history

Countries around the world in recent history have seen an increased focus on inclusion and diversity, which has cast a light on the strong need for laws to be inclusive of all human beings despite their choice of religion, sexuality and gender. Similar to the political landscape making this shift, companies have overtime been urged by the public to connect with the cultural zeitgeist to better represent their target audience and employees.

With public distrust levels in politicians and governments at an all-time high, there has never been a point in history where companies can play an important role in helping shape positive changes in society that are felt by their stakeholders and wider society. This opportunity can give companies the chance to become more socially aware corporate citizens, thus increasing their brand favourability among their target audience.


When wading into political movements, do so with heightened awareness

As companies choose to take political stances, they enter a realm of identity and emotion. Political affiliations tap into many issues that people care most about, including notions of family, safety, fairness and money. This means that when companies choose to take a stance on issues such as LGBT rights, they need to pay close attention in how they communicate it.

An example related to the situation in Brunei is STA Travel, who have decided to sever all business ties with Royal Brunei Airlines due to their support for the LGBT community. In a statement they have concisely communicated their support for an open and diverse community, and that Royal Brunei Airlines’ does not align with their values due to the laws being included on Brunei-registered aircraft and vessels.

While some companies take advantage of cases like the one in Brunei to hijack a movement purely for their advantage, STA Travel’s decision to release a statement highlighting their position was respectful of the emotions surrounding the topic. It also shows they have a strong awareness of their target audience being travellers, and how these laws may affect them.


Understand the impact brand positioning can have in the context of a social media-connected world

When Pepsi attempted to position its brand in support of the protest movement in 2017, their ad featuring international model Kendall Jenner stunning a crowd of multi-cultural protestors was seen as a misguided appropriation of the cultural movement. They received intense backlash on social media and immediately pulled the ad.

When companies choose to position their brand in a certain way through an ad campaign, they must know that ads aren’t just “placed” anymore in desirable media channels – they can be spread virally through social-networks. Context can change and evolve with every share, particularly when an ad touches on emotionally charged topics. This gives further weight towards companies having an increased awareness when positioning their brand and respecting the movement or cause for what it truly represents.


By Jesse Ward, a Strategy and Relationship Executive at EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam)

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