The techlash is over. Time for marketing to spread the word

Hannah Stubbings

We’ve come a long way since the year of the ‘techlash‘. In 2018, big tech was accused of manipulating elections, eroding our personal privacy, and running discriminatory operations. Public trust in the tech giants slumped.

The outrage was mainly directed at a handful of the largest consumer tech firms, but the entire sector, including B2B, suddenly had to be careful about their messaging. Many took a defensive position, focusing on the financial or business benefits of technology instead of the wider impact that technology has on individuals and on society.

Two years on, and things are much more positive. Technology has become a lifeline during the pandemic. Many of us are working from home, we stay in touch with loved ones on video calls, and we shop online for essential supplies. Track-and-trace mobile apps and symptom-reporting tools help authorities and scientists to understand the virus. Technology is proving its worth both personally and professionally – something that is reflected in the financial results of big tech firms.

The techlash might be receding, but will technology companies change the way they operate? From product design to employee engagement, are firms ready to fully embrace the idea of ‘tech for good’?

Can technology work for good?

At the height of the pandemic, key workers such as medics, teachers and those in the food industry were rightly hailed as heroes for keeping communities and households intact. Many in other non-essential or corporate jobs wanted to replicate that same sense of purpose and value in their own roles, but felt unable to, so much so, that 41% of British people are considering quitting their jobs to do something more fulfilling once the pandemic is over.

Now is the time for the tech sector to show off its ‘tech for good’ credentials in its marketing. As we have seen, it has kept us going through the pandemic; once we emerge from the crisis it can continue to play a positive role in any number of sectors: smart technology makes cities more environmentally friendly, cloud tools give people better quality of life through flexible working, and wearable technologies promote healthier lifestyles. The list is endless.

But it’s down to technology marketers to tell that positive story, not just tread the common topics. What’s the best way do that?

Look beyond the job title

By emphasising the ‘tech for good’ messaging in their products and marketing, tech firms can tap into people’s new desire to give back. Not everyone is a frontline worker, but clever use of technology can help people in all roles across all sectors make a difference for their customers, and the world.

To make this point, technology marketers have to rethink how they position their products and services. They started out talking to techie audiences about the speeds and feeds of their products – ‘faster’, ‘bigger’ and ‘smarter’ were the watchwords. But as IT became a business concern, that changed: marketers began talking to the lines of business – ‘cheaper’, ‘more efficient’, and ‘improved ROI’ became the key selling points.

Today, they need to consider and speak to the human behind the job title. That means the new watchwords are ‘fairer’, ‘greener’ and ‘society-enhancing’.

We’ve compiled some of the questions your digital audience will be asking itself during the Covid-19 pandemic, and after it has passed.

Can you answer them? Download the infographic here.

Authenticity is everything

Brands must use the ‘tech for good’ message wisely and authentically. If you talk about the positive impact tech can have on the world without meaningfully demonstrating it across your business, you’ll be on a fast track to brand damage.

So it’s essential that this kind of marketing comes from the top and is backed by the entire company. And if your technology isn’t contributing to a better society, why not? And how can you change that? Perhaps this is a bigger question for the business to answer, but it’s an essential one.

Microsoft is a good example of a brand that puts its money where its mouth is. Its mission statement is “empower every person and organization to achieve more”, and CEO Satya Nadella is a strong advocate for people using Microsoft technology for the greater good. This is backed up by action: this year it invested $40 million in an AI for Good programme designed to give non-profits, academics and researchers access to cutting-edge technology in order to improve health outcomes.

Governments are closely scrutinising the role of big tech companies in the world, so it’s important to demonstrate how your technology can have a positive effect. But beware going too far and purpose-washing, where brands are accused of promoting a worthy cause in their messaging for the sake of it – without backing it up with their actions.

Nike, for instance, has promoted female empowerment through a range of campaigns over the years. But it recently came under fire for the way it treated the female athletes it sponsored when they became pregnant. Following public outcry, the sports giant introduced a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes. L’Oréal Paris, meanwhile, was accused of hypocrisy for a Black Lives Matter Instagram post in the wake of the killing of George Floyd that claimed the company “stands in solidarity with the Black community”: three years ago it dropped model Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out against racism.

Seize the moment

Times have changed, fast, and tech companies whose products genuinely improve people’s lives, and whose marketing teams can authentically share that message, will benefit. Shallow, false or opportunistic campaigns around ‘tech for good’ will be quickly called out and consigned to the dustbin of marketing history – where they probably belong.

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About the author: Hannah Stubbings

Hannah joined FT Longitude at the start of 2019 as a technology editor. Drawing on her experience as a technology research analyst and journalist, she designs and executes insightful thought leadership campaigns that help clients achieve their goals.

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