How brands manipulate the topic of Russian aggression to turn bigger profits
Illustration by Yuliia Vynohradska / LIGA.net

Information is a weapon. It's no longer just a headline for another ‘hi-tech, low-life’ piece. It is now the truth.

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Manipulating information gives you power that cannot be gained by any other means. The ability to manipulate information was the reason why cryptocurrency ICOs existed in 2016-2018.

That’s how Brexit happened in 2016; some districts are mercilessly filled with new multi-storey residential buildings, and in others, ‘people’s interests win’; someone becomes president, and someone ceases to be a valid politician for billions of people around the world.

In the military field, a set of information manipulation techniques is known as a psy-op, and in the commercial sector, as SERM. But in both cases, a few dozen people with laptops, knowledge and a good internet connection can influence hundreds of thousands of lives. And Russia's war against Ukraine is no exception.

Let's look at how the Ukrainian commercial information field has changed this year.

When CSR breaks down: Brands react to Russia’s aggression

When we talk about brands or media, we often forget that they actually react like people. After all, they have people behind them. And in the first days of the war, this was especially noticeable.

Those who had a clear position and had been working on it not in words but in deeds since 2014 immediately issued statements and directed part of their efforts to support Ukrainians. Some provided physical support; others, economic support.

But there were two other groups – businesses that decided to completely relocate their facilities while it was still possible, and therefore did not communicate at all, and those who had ambitions to work with the aggressor country's market or had already worked there.

Those had the ‘hardest’ time because a certain percentage of them didn't want to ‘spoil the relationship’, while the others were panicking and looking for a type of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that would not create a real burden on their business and would give them a window of opportunity to regroup and think about where to run more profitably – that is, to see who would win.

So, in the first months of the war, the reactions of brands in the media space can be divided into three conditional groups:

  1. Real proactive stance, transparency, assistance, and reporting.
  2. Pause in communication.
  3. Search for quasi-CSR activities to gain time and choose who to work for.

‘Hard mode’ anti-crisis: What strategies brands chose in the first six months and why

The first reactions that brands started with became the basis for their communication and business strategies for the next year. Each of the aforementioned ‘positions’ gradually evolved into a specific business approach, and six months later, it brought its consequences.

Proactive companies identified the most comfortable and acceptable approaches to help, be it assisting in reconstruction of destroyed cities, regular donations / procurement, or assistance with the adaptation of survivors. In fact, this group of businesses integrated CSR into their operations.

In terms of communication strategy, proactive brands benefited the most, as they positioned their assistance as an irreversible investment in the country, rather than an indulgence to continue business activities.

As a result, those who proved themselves most clearly in the first months of the war managed to gain a higher ground from which they can now work with audience loyalty much more easily and effectively.

The situation with ‘silent’ brands is much more interesting. As a rule, two conclusions can be drawn about them at once: They had had no anti-crisis plan and did not understand how reputation management works in the public space.

Due to a long delay in communication in an attempt to ‘wait it out’, this group of brands lost a window of opportunity to maintain and increase audience loyalty, as well as attract a new audience, and found themselves in the least advantageous position of all.

At the moment when such businesses realised that ‘time was running out’, which was around the third month of the full-scale war, they split into two subgroups.

  • The first one ‘silently’ returned to its usual activities, switching to the Ukrainian language and focusing on finding new products, services, markets, and revenue verticals – and it’s not the worst strategy.
  • The second group, in an attempt to offset the blow dealt to the image, began to aggressively join or create CSR initiatives. They ran in the red, since their business model did not provide for the burden created by CSR projects.

As a result, the latter group, at best, competed in terms of usefulness with an average to poor volunteer collection, and at worst, simply wasted man-hours on chaotic and meaningless movements that affected reputation, like an Instagram post without a promotional budget. In other words, they did nothing.

As for ‘pseudo-loyal’ brands, they were replaced by a group of ‘silent’ ones six months into the war. Those who had started looking for ‘pseudo-CSR’ at the start of the invasion already decided what to do. They have limited themselves to ‘cosmetic’ changes in communication, deducting (nominally) a certain percent of their profits for the needs of the army, creating ‘AFU-style’ goods or calling for ‘buying from us, and not forgetting to help the country first’.

What were the consequences of such communication in the first six months of the war for each category of entrepreneurs?

Proactive companies gained a convenient communication platform, but many of them did not take into account that the territory of patriotism is limited in time, and quickly gaining loyalty will turn into a childish rebellion of the audience just as quickly.

Silent brands lost time and opportunity not so much to scale up as to retain their existing audience and average check. Now, they have to build interest in themselves and their services almost from scratch.

Brands that imitated CSR from the beginning, on the contrary, created a more or less sustainable approach to sales and a small bonus to perception. Some of them indeed implemented useful initiatives, while others remained at least a formal reminder that the country is at war.

The main theses of the ‘victorious’ businesses in communication turned out to be just as losing as the main theses of ‘one-day’ entrepreneurs looking for profit.

In order to be able to monetise the audience for a long time and effectively, it must be treated with care. In the case of war, ‘carefully’ means patiently, without exceeding the degree of either moral obligation or deficit.

All of this works when it comes to a short-time, ‘jerky’ mobilisation of resources both mental and financial. Such mobilisation will not allow the brand to operate effectively in public for more than a year, so one should not get too carried away.

That's why the entrepreneurs who quickly declared their position and then thought about how to implement it in business and communication in a way that would allow them to continue making money and not turn into fighters for ‘all good against all bad’ were the most successful.

Now let's look at how they control our minds to make more money even during the war.

Commercial heroism? Businesses’ key manipulations

Manipulations with product groups / naming / promotion. Businesses resort to ‘Bakhmut’ sausages, ‘Azovstal’ socks, ‘Chornobaivka’ coffee shops, and burgers with Muscovites – which is a real case of naming by one of Kyiv’s restaurants – when they have no unique advantage at the level of product, communication, or business model in general.

While this is designed to turn a quick profit, there is no evidence that this really works. Usually, the only tangible result of such activities is a noticeable decrease in the loyalty of regular customers after a few months. This tool can be classified as harmful both to society and to the businesses that implement it.

‘Safe cancelling’. This includes, for example, stickers with a crossed-out pig [a reference to Russians], signs saying ‘the premises are de-Russified’, merchandise with slogans such as ‘good evening, we are from Ukraine’, etc.

They are designed to increase the loyalty of the existing audience and may have the desired effect from time to time. However, this is only an imitation of a position.

After all, the audience they are ‘cancelling’ is physically absent in the ‘target area’ of these brands, meaning that there is no one to be ‘against’; it is an uprising without a threat. However, it does no harm either.

‘Percentages for the Armed Forces’. It is businesses' manipulation in terms of justifying their activities. Brands use the communication message about allocating a certain percentage of their revenues to the Armed Forces to solve several of their problems at once:

  1. Distract from an overly aggressive or mediocre advertising campaign
  2. Shift the focus of critical people away from a product or service that society may consider ‘out of date’
  3. Justify pricing

The main problem with the latter is that this is physically impossible to verify, as businesses are not required to make their transactions public as part of normal commercial activities (non-governmental tenders or open procurement). Therefore, the only thing that such a communication twist does is show others that it is now very cheap to have a position. Is this good for the media space? Hardly.

Whitewashing of grey categories at the expense of a hypothetical – since it is impossible to verify – scale of donations. Greetings to all the microcredit organisations and other ‘fighters’ on the invisible front of the Ukrainian economy.

War is one of the best possible periods for aggressive communication by such businesses, because they always have an ‘ironclad’ argument: "We have contributed N million hryvnias to the Armed Forces." The fact is that N million is about two percent of their marginal profit, and where the other 98 percent went remains behind the scenes. However, technically, this is (probably) not a lie.

Substituting business motivation concepts. As soon as large developers recovered and realised that not all potential investors for new housing had left the country, they began to return to their usual activities. Quite often, they accompanied this with communication about ‘rebuilding Ukraine together’.

However, the message ‘we will rebuild’ implies unselfish unilateral assistance to the victims, not frantically stamping out new multi-storey buildings instead of a lake and trying to sell them off before the import of materials becomes more expensive.

Therefore, such communication is nothing more than an attempt to pass off mundane commercial activities as noble patriotic impulses.

Creating ‘military-patriotic collections’. Many businesses, from clothing brands to jewellery houses, have done this. Is it always a bad thing? No, not always. But the details matter.

There is a big difference between ‘creating a limited number of unique, high-quality items and donating the proceeds to charity’ and ‘launching mass production of low-quality souvenirs with patriotic names and current colours’.

Now the market has enough of both, but the very existence of the latter will gradually reduce the fashion for wearing anything related to Ukraine. And this is bad.

Tobacco and alcohol manufacturers are now lobbying for their own interests and trying to restore their position in society. Is it destructive to create ‘patriotic’ collections in these industries, part of the proceeds of which go to charity? Hardly.

But do not forget that under current Ukrainian legislation, these markets are extremely limited in terms of advertising inventory, formats, and the ability to contact the audience. Therefore, perhaps, this is not only a way for them to emphasise their public position, but also one of the tools to circumvent the ban on promoting their products.

The opinions expressed in the articles of freelance experts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial board