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A new way for brands to take a stand

The events of 2020 have pushed businesses to take a stand on social issues in a new way.  Who would have guessed that wearing a mask would become a political issue? But it has.

For those of you who aren’t up on the politics of mask wearing (or not wearing) here is a summary of the reasons why it has become political and analysis of what is behind the politics.

First, there are differences in what the news sources are telling people and also differences in the status of the pandemic in different communities.  In response to the geography of the community/state, governments are making different rules and then changing them as the pandemic status changes.  In an extremely rural area, masks and social distancing measures are viewed as less important because there are fewer people.  This has led to a push/pull of state and local rules. For example, for a while, Atlanta Georgia had a mask mandate, but the state of Georgia didn’t. And, in fact, the state of Georgia sued Atlanta to get them to remove their mandate.  (Note: That suit was later withdrawn.)

In addition to the physical differences and the variations in how hard hit the area is by the pandemic, there are also mindset differences. In addition to not having as close contact with others and as many opportunities to spread the virus, rural areas tend to be more conservative and have a different set of values than the more densely populated cities.  Thus, upstate NY has a different viewpoint than the metro NY area and the rest of Georgia has a different viewpoint than Atlanta. This includes a greater emphasis on liberty and freedom.  While liberty wasn’t one of the original moral foundations that Haidt proposed in his original work, he did later include in his book, The Righteous Mind.  Alternatively, as I recently discussed with Jonathan Haidt, it may be that liberty has become part of the Sacredness/Purity moral value for Americans, because of our history.  And Liberty is the oft cited reason given by those who don’t want to wear masks.

But I think there is something more, something unacknowledged.  Analyzing mask resistance by who is resisting and what is important them points to the potential for other moral foundations to be involved.  Because other people like them aren’t wearing masks and because wearing a mask is so noticeable, I would like to suggest that not wearing a mask has become a badge of belonging, a signal of which group you belong to.  Further, it also seems that men might have more of a problem wearing masks. This might indicate that mask resistance has become a signifier of masculinity, that they aren’t cowed by a disease, which is another aspect of belonging (to the male subtribe). Beyond these factors, the current president, rarely wears a mask and rarely suggests that anyone should wear a mask. Thus, if someone who supports President Trump wore a mask, he would be violating the Respect for Authority moral foundation.

If I am right that there are three moral foundations propelling mask resistance, that makes it hard to dislodge.

Where do businesses fit into this?  Businesses need to follow the rules set by the governing authority. Some businesses who decided to flout the rules have lost their licenses, or had their lease not renewed. In addition, they don’t want to get a reputation for harming their customers. But if they have a customer base which is anti-mask, this puts them in a difficult position.

Major retailers, who operate across multiple locations and have to contend with multiple laws, have decided to implement a company-wide policy on mask wearing.  This includes chains such as Walmart and Kroger. Walmart is particularly interesting because so much of their sales are in rural locations, which tend to be more conservative and tend to have lower levels of infection. Thus, they have a particular challenge. So, when they announced their new policy, they included that they were instituting a “Health Ambassador” who: “will work with customers who show up at a store without a face covering to try and find a solution. We are currently considering different solutions for customers when this requirement takes effect.”

Another type of business which is enforcing masks is the airlines. As of September 3rd, Delta has banned 270 people for not wearing a mask. United Airlines is requiring masks both on board and in the airports. American Airlines has banned a conservative activist who refused to wear a mask.

Many of the stories of people flouting mask wearing policies are occurring at businesses. The people on the front lines are not the policy makers, they are the minimum wage clerks or ticket agents who have to deal with this. This has contributed to the viral news and videos of people harassing those enforcing the rules. Stores and airlines are given them rules to enforce but aren’t giving them tools for how to cope with this conflict beyond banning people, probably because they don’t know what else to do.
But marketers know that there are ways to persuade people to do things.  Understanding the moral foundations involved in mask resistance and using the technique of moral reframing can help to create more successful options. For those of you who don’t yet know this technique, I describe it in detail in both my books, Marketing Landmines and Persuade, Don’t Preach.

I did find one example of an organization using moral reframing about mask wearing, perhaps without realizing that is what it is. Montana has created a message about mask wearing that shows pictures of hunters and skiers wearing masks and ties it to being from Montana.  This campaign is reminiscent of the hugely successful littering campaign in Texas (“Don’t Mess with Texas”) that has run for over 30 years and is responsible for Texas having cleaner highways. Both of these campaigns use the power of the Belonging moral foundation – being “from” a state – and also Respect for Authority moral foundation (the state says to do this.)  I predict Montana’s campaign will be successful because of this.

Another advertiser (Uber) is using advertising to appeal to its audience in a very different way.  Its commercial shows a series of pictures of drivers and passengers, all wearing masks, saying that “we protect each other.” This message is using a different moral foundation, that of Care/Harm. This is appropriate because most of its customers are probably liberal, who place extremely high importance on the Care/Harm moral foundation. It wouldn’t work as well for conservatives, who don’t place as high importance on that foundation and because their other strong  moral foundations interact with Care/Harm.  

In another culture, the South Koreans are using scare tactics to get people to wear masks, showing picture of a person wearing an N-95 mask next to a person wearing a ventilator mask. This fear based tactic is a reference to the disgust part of the Sacredness/Purity moral foundation. Asian culture tends to be high in this moral foundation. 

The best thing about using the moral reframing technique is that it opens up lots of options that can be created and it takes into account the composition of your target audience.  I think that Montana using the Belonging moral foundation is an inspired choice given their audience and Uber using Care/Harm is inspired for them.

There are also other ways besides advertising to apply moral reframing that are particularly relevant for businesses that need tools for their front line workers to use. One which I suggested in a youtube video is to have masks on hand at the entryway of the store that have an American flag on them. Or a MAGA symbol. Or something else that would clearly brand this person as a patriot. That might short circuit the knee-jerk reaction of mask resistance, if you gave them another way to signal the group that they Belong to. 

Another option is for a business is to use the liberty moral foundation for its own.  As I was quoted in an article in on how to handle difficult customers: “If the person focuses on liberty, the business can say, 'We are having a conflict about liberty – your liberty to wear a mask and my liberty to decide who can enter my premises. Because I know you respect my liberty as well as yours, I am sure that you will support my decision to require a mask from people who choose to enter my premises,"  
Again, similar to the previous suggestion, you can provide masks for them to wear, and give them a choice of what symbol they wish to wear. It’s important to emphasize that they have a choice of which mask to wear, emphasizing their liberty.   

After years in marketing, I was excited to find moral foundations theory because it offered a new way to understand people and new way to persuade.  It’s especially useful when there is conflict happening the way there is over mask wearing or any time brands take a position on a social issue. But not enough people are aware of the power that it can offer. Please feel free to pass on this email to people who need to know this. 


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Karen Tibbals @KarenTibbals

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