From entertainment to energy, brands from a range of industries around the world have wasted no time in shifting their business to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine—in many cases leading to significant financial losses and even outpacing government action.

Disney, Warner Bros and Sony have all paused film releases in Russia—including Disney's Turning Red, WarnerMedia’s scheduled March 3 release of The Batman and Sony's latest Marvel installment, Morbius. It’s a significant move, considering that the Russian market brought in $601 million in box office sales in 2021—nearly 3% of global ticket sales.

Shell and BP are pulling out of Russia, divesting their stakes in Russian oil companies. Analysts estimate that the move could cost BP more than $25 million, while Shell’s Russian interests were valued at approximately $3 billion as of the end of 2021. And ExxonMobil is halting operations at a multibillion-dollar oil and gas project in Russia.

BMW has stopped exporting its vehicles to Russia and is ceasing assembly of vehicles in the country. Ford has suspended all operations in Russia and Jaguar Land Rover has halted delivery of its vehicles to Russia. Tesla is offering free EV charging stations in Ukraine, and a shipment of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-internet dishes was delivered to Ukraine on February 28.

Apple has halted product sales in Russia and has pulled some Russian news apps from the App Store. Dell has suspended product sales in Russia. Google has disabled Google Maps in Ukraine to protect local citizens and communities.

Social media companies, meanwhile, are implementing measures to combat Russian propaganda and misinformation. Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta has banned Russian state media from running ads on Facebook, and Google has implemented similar ad bans. TikTok has restricted access to Russian state-controlled media on its app. Twitter is labeling and reducing the visibility of tweets linking to Russian state media. And YouTube is blocking channels connected to Russian state-owned media outlets across Europe.

Historically, brands have shied away from politics and other polarizing social issues, for fear of offending or alienating consumers. Over the past several years, however, it’s become increasingly clear that staying silent on the sociopolitical stage is more harmful than it is helpful. Chinese consumers were quick to call out brands’ ignorance and prejudice in 2019; gen Z consumers report looking to a brand’s sustainability and inclusivity policies before purchasing; and watchdog platforms are emerging to keep track of brands’ ethical—and unethical—actions.

Consumers expect brands to play a role in combating global humanitarian and planetary concerns. 88% of global consumers say that companies and brands have a responsibility to take care of the planet and its people, 86% expect businesses to play their part in solving big challenges like climate change or social justice, and 75% say that businesses’ responses to COVID-19 have raised their expectations of brands’ roles in fighting the world’s biggest problems, according to research collected by Wunderman Thompson Data for Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s “Regeneration Rising: New Sustainability” report. Rising generations especially have high expectations of brands—85% of American gen Zers believe that brands should be about something more than profit, and 80% believe that brands should help make people’s lives better, according to research collected by Wunderman Thompson Data for Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s “Gen Z: Building a Better Normal” report.

“Ordinary companies should make a decision,” Fiona Hill, Russian affairs expert and former deputy assistant to the President and senior director for Europe and Russia at the White House, told Politico. “This is the epitome of “ESG” that companies are saying is their priority right now—upholding standards of good Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance. Just like people didn’t want their money invested in South Africa during apartheid, do you really want to have your money invested in Russia during Russia’s brutal invasion and subjugation and carving up of Ukraine?”

Brands have significant cultural, social, economic and even political power—and consumers are looking to corporate leaders to use it for good by taking meaningful action in the face of global humanitarian and planetary concerns. Brand responses to this latest sociopolitical conflict could cement brands as heavyweight cultural leaders, rewriting the rulebook on leadership.

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