Heroes or Villains: How Brands Can Navigate Today’s Climate of Heightened Moral Judgment

The Chinese word for crisis is composed of two characters — 危机 — one signifying ‘danger’ and one signifying ‘opportunity.’ We have begun to see this duality play out in the way that brands are being judged, and their reputations and images changed, by how they have been behaving and communicating not just in response to the pandemic, but also in response to the recent wave of protests for racial justice. Insights from our newly launched WhatsApp Community of consumers and small business owners, show that people are displaying a heightened sensitivity to how ‘corporate America’ is behaving and which ‘side’ companies are on – with a new landscape of heroes and villains emerging. Understanding how people are assessing brands in this climate of heightened moral judgement could give companies a crucial advantage in terms of driving their responses and framing their messaging. We will use the ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ outlined by Jonathan Haidt as a framework for understanding how our moral intuitions are being activated in the current environment, and how companies can adapt to this new level of scrutiny – whether this takes the form of a short-term adaptation or a longer-term transformation.