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19 March 2015

Freedom of Speech in Marketing

Discussions on freedom of speech have recently come up again after the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris and the inflammatory calls for terrorist support on social media from influential supporters of the ideology behind those attacks. The right to express any opinion without censorship or restraint is one of the fundamental rights of our Western democracies. Although it seems to be widely accepted by our modern European society, reality has shown that purposely offending other cultures or religions can have drastic consequences, often leading to a vicious spiral of violence – initially verbal but ultimately physical. Consequently, in recent weeks a public debate has started on the question as to whether freedom of speech has limits. Do we need to be more careful, especially when making statements on religions or cultures we don’t know sufficiently well which can be perceived as provocative? It’s an interesting question, not only for journalists but also for marketers.


We live in a globalised world, which implies that we can reach people with different cultures, religions, values and habits through different channels (like the social media) instantaneously. This for sure opens new horizons and opportunities but it also brings its own challenges. For marketers building global brands it can be particularly challenging to develop a brand and a marketing approach that is appreciative and respectful of all cultures. In highly competitive times, marketers want to differentiate themselves from the competition with creativity, often through provocative elements. Creativity and competition push us to go further. In the end, there is often only a thin line between attracting people’s attention and offending people of a certain culture or religion.

Companies should take into account the consequences or the risks of hurting a certain part of the population. Apart from the core question as to whether brands have the right to express opinions and take risks to aggress, brand managers should, as business managers, assess the impact on brand equity and sales. Can culturally or religiously offensive messages backfire on the brand? Aggressive reactions towards companies that offend other cultures or religions, or towards employees working for these companies can well be expected. Ideological considerations aside, marketers should take their responsibility and think how to avoid these challenges.

We believe it is a matter of focus, agility and respect.

Focus first, because it is important to stay true to the brand and to avoid being opportunistic. Take the reaction of 3suisses to the Paris attacks. The company wanted to leverage the popular “Je suis Charlie” quote that was going around the world for its own purposes by mixing its logo in it. The “Je 3suisses Charlie” was posted on their Facebook account but had to be removed quickly after it elicited fierce reactions about 3suisses being opportunistic.

Agility, as it is crucial to react quickly and to have the necessary resources to do so in case of need. In certain circumstances, for example when terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo, marketing campaigns and communication plans need to be adapted quickly. You don’t want to share happy thoughts when something terrible has just happened. Moreover, you don’t want to be associated with people doing terrible things. As such, the American payment company ISIS changed its name into Softcard after the terrorist group proclaimed the caliphate – and after threats were received from opponents.

Respect, as it is just sound practice to take into account the feelings and sensitivities of people in our professional activities. Going after (marketing) impact doesn’t give you license to do whatever it takes to get there. As we are living in a civilized, democratic society, companies should gauge the level of respect towards society that is embedded in their commercial actions.

Finally, next to focus, agility and respect, it is necessary to keep on listening to consumers and monitoring how people react. It remains important to understand the different cultures the brand is reaching. The Lewis Model of cross-cultural communication, for instance, is a tool that can help to provide a practical framework for communicating with people of different cultures.

Taking cultural differences into account and discovering the limits of freedom of speech in marketing will nonetheless remain a challenge, where the marketer’s own judgment and set of values will be the ultimate criteria against which decisions will be taken.

Grégory Delens, Managing Director
Kris Vansanten, Chief Coach