When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the corporate world’s response was loud and clear.
Corporate giants from Adidas and Disney, to Bank of America and Toyota, pledged financial and moral support for Ukraine and Ukrainians. CEOs including Apple’s Tim Cook and Citi Group’s Jane Fraser sported Ukrainian flag lapels in solidarity.
Many firms, including oil behemoth ExxonMobil and household goods brand Unilever, condemned Moscow in explicit terms.
More than 1,000 companies ultimately pledged to cease or scale back business in Russia as perceptions of Moscow soured globally.
The response of big business to the Israel-Hamas conflict has been muted in comparison.
Many household name brands that adopted a vocal stance on the Ukraine war have declined to weigh in on the Middle East conflict.
Those that have – such as Microsoft, Google, Hewlett Packard, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs – have expressed support for Israel and condemned Hamas over the armed group’s multipronged attack on Saturday, which killed at least 1,300 people and injured about 3,400.
By contrast, major corporations have been silent on Israel’s retaliatory air raids on Gaza, which so far have killed at least 1,799 Palestinians and injured more than 6,300.
The United Nations and aid groups have further warned of a coming humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza after Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians trapped in the enclave to move south within 24 hours ahead of an expected ground offensive.
For companies known for touting their social justice credentials, the Israel-Palestine conflict represents a particularly challenging issue to weigh in on due to the sensitivities and complex dynamics involved, according to marketing experts.
Rahat Kapur, editor of the industry publication Campaign Asia, said the level of historical complexity and nuance involved in the conflict makes companies wary of inserting themselves and engaging in “brandification”.
“There’s a temptation to issue binary points of view in order to show fervor and strength, which oftentimes backfires when their following or consumer base is able to see through these efforts,” Kapur told Al Jazeera.
“Similarly, performative brand stances in social areas can often lead to more backlash, unprecedented reputation damage and overnight loss of customer sentiment and loyalty, which are all incredibly difficult, time-consuming and costly to recover.”
Showing support for Palestine in particular is likely to be a risky move for companies in Western countries, many of which describe Hamas as a “terrorist” group.
Expressions of solidarity in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom have been largely confined to small organisations like student associations and the Green Brigade of Celtic Football Club supporters.
In the US, pro-Palestinian rallies during the past week have faced heavy blowback from critics who have accused organisers of justifying Hamas violence.
France has banned all pro-Palestinian protests outright on public order grounds, while Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and the UK have warned or restricted pro-Palestine groups accused of supporting Hamas or advocating anti-Jewish views.
“Israel’s countermeasure under the name Operation Swords of Iron has, since Monday, resulted in the death of hundreds of Palestinians, many of whom were children,” Carl Rhodes, the dean of the University of Technology Sydney’s Business School, told Al Jazeera.
“There has been no noticeable response from Western corporations, whose actions appear more political than genuinely humanitarian.”
Big business has also faced criticism for not mounting a stronger condemnation of the deadliest attack inside Israel since the country’s founding.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told CNN in an interview this week that the response of corporate America had been “disappointing at best, disastrous at worst”.
Consumers themselves have given ambivalent signals about whether they favour companies weighing in on social and political matters.
In a 2019 survey by Sprout Social, more than two-thirds of American consumers said it is “important for brands to take a public stance on social and political issues”.
However, just over half said they would boycott brands that did not “align with their own views” while 34 percent said they would reduce their spending on them.
In 2020, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of American social media users felt “worn out” by political posts in general.
Felipe Thomaz, an associate professor of marketing at Oxford’s Said Business School, said perceptions of companies’ social justice campaigns often come down to individuals’ personal beliefs and values.
“We use brands as a way to communicate things about ourselves, … so it’s reasonable to want brands to reflect your opinion about the world,” Thomaz told Al Jazeera.
Thomaz said the stakes are especially high during war, which is why brands often prefer to stick to general comments decrying violence or say nothing at all.
“When brands take a stance that is opposite to the majority of its users, that statement becomes an attack on their identity, and they revolt. So it’s risky,” he said.