A reputation 155 years in the making can take just 7 minutes and 16 seconds to evaporate, just ask Coopers. The beer brewery’s recent murky involvement with The Bible Society’s video debate into same-sex marriage, as part of their ‘Keep It Light’ campaign to show how contentious issues can be debated respectfully, backfired, to say the least. Drinkers around the country said they’d never down another Coopers again and some publicans yanked it from their taps, while others said they would be heading into bottleshop and buying cases to show their support for the Aussie beer company. So what did we learn? The upshot is that when a brand takes a public position on an issue, especially one as close to the hearts of many as gay marriage, it’s a gamble. These calculated risks can gain or lose your company supporters, if you come out with a net benefit then it would be considered a success, but when you come out at a loss you have to stop and ask, was it worth it? With this in mind, brands should be taking more interest in the new generation entering Australian public debate, our youth, otherwise known as Gen Z, and the issues important to them. Only then can they build a good reputation among young people. So let’s have a look at what Coopers did wrong.

Don’t forget the passion of youth.

A beer company associating itself with a religious society and a debate between a couple of blue-suited, conservative politicians surrounding the topical social issue of marriage equality is one of the weirdest love-triangles imaginable. In one short video, Coopers laid out their political, religious and social beliefs all at once, despite later saying it was solely the workings of The Bible Society. Are they going to appeal to the youth of today who have a lifetime of beer drinking ahead of them? For most, no. With their sense of egalitarianism, Australians like to passionately keep people and large companies in check, and this sense of social justice, especially on progressive issues, is usually at its most fiery in youth. According to ABC’s Vote Compass,  only 24% of people aged 18 to 34 believe marriage should exclusively exist between a man and a woman. That compares to 41% of those aged 55 and over. Coopers should have looked at the stats. They failed to accurately represent young people. Where do young people often gather? Bars. What are they often doing as they discuss the issues of the day? Drinking. What are the youth of today drinking more of than previous generations? Craft beer. Coopers likes to tout itself as Australia’s oldest brewer, but does it want to associate itself with views from the time it first started blending hops in 1855? With young people at least, definitely not. Similarly, they should have known how youth would react to a public stance the an issue before they jumped on it.

Remember where the power lies.

The power of big business has traditionally been wielded in debates of social, environmental and scientific issues with an influence that the everyday person could only dream of. That was until the rise of social media. Today businesses still hold a privileged position in these debates and can attach great weight to a cause simply with their name. This relationship between a brand and its values has always been important to youth, the difference today is that this market of individuals can unite online, on social media, to have their voice heard in a way unimaginable just a decade ago, and ultimately vote, not just with their dollars, but with their likes and shares. Coopers found this out quickly as its Facebook rating was smashed to just 1.7 stars out of 5 (accurate at time of writing). A simple hashtag like #boycottcoopers can lose a company hundreds or thousands of supporters overnight. Social equality issues are highly charged at the best of times and everyone is entitled to their opinion on them. Companies, who have a profit motive, can’t be as carefree as individuals in what they express and who they partner with if they want to stay in business. When there are clear stats saying young Australians are in favour of marriage equality, it’s probably a debate that’s best left alone unless you are going to side with the majority.

Find out the issues important to youth.

Having already established the views of young people on same sex marriage, it’s important to figure out what other issues garner their attention? A checklist would include climate change, refugees, online censorship, downloading and streaming, bullying, mental health, gender and sexual discrimination, social inequality, resource sustainability, housing costs and the rapidly changing nature of the economy and jobs. Whether it’s positioning yourself as a powerful voice behind a cause through a long-running connection or showing your hand when one of these issues boils and bubbles to the surface of the marketplace of ideas, it’s not a bad option to align your brand with an ideology. Both methods are effective ways for brands to be more than just a product or a service and become a voice and instigator of change.

Play your cards right.

In the case of Coopers, some inner city pubs and bars with gay staff and clientele ditched the South Australian brewery from their beer lists. The move said to their customers “we’re with you.” It was just a small example of how a company can release a statement which strengthens its connection with its target market without too much risk. In other words, the bars played their cards right, at the right time. Coopers made a belated attempt to quell the damage and the owners came out with an awkward video message expressing their support for marriage equality, a move which, according to online commentary, managed to win them back at least some of the customers they had lost. But it also came out that the company has been a long-time financial supporter of the SA Liberal Party, a factor which many drinkers didn’t know and, if they did,  wouldn’t support. The ad brought this little-known fact to light, perhaps severing some long-term customers. Only time will tell on the lasting damage, but as oft quoted wisdom goes, sometimes it’s best to just leave religion and politics out of the discussion. Or if you are dragged into it unintentionally as Coopers claims, then to distance yourself from it immediately. Gen Z have grown up with a power other generations did not, being able to through social media directly and publicly support or condemn a company for its actions. Depending which way the cards fall it can either be a huge opportunity or a huge nightmare for a company. Focussing on more benign but still important issues like jobs and the economy which don’t play into identity politics is the safe route to go down. Tackling more charged issues isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, but it’s absolutely vital to go in armed with the knowledge of how your youth market feels about the issues before you take a position. Once you do take that position, then be prepared for whatever comes back at you. The last thing you want is a self-inflicted hangover that you may or may not recover from.