LDWW 17 Oct 2018 // 2:28PM GMT
Much attention has been paid recently to brand and c-suite social activism, especially following high-profile examples in the news this year from Nike and other top brands. And there is certainly an upward trend toward more social involvement from companies and CEOs. But should there be? And if it is a growing trend, how do companies decide what is right for them?
Some consumers (especially millennials and younger generations) will increasingly expect some level of social activism from companies they do business with moving forward. But consumer sentiment on this topic is mixed. So, what happens when your customers disagree with your stance? When it comes to balancing reputation and social activism, you have to consider your entire universe of stakeholder audiences and what you really want to accomplish.
The answer to whether or not you should be “active” or even comment on social or political issues is not an easy one. There are many factors and it really depends on the company, the goals and the situation. Anyone who attempts to generalize and say that all or most companies should follow a trend or take a particular action is likely selling a service. Every situation is different and context matters. As professional communicators and brand advocates, it is our job to focus the discussion on what is right for the brand – including whether the organization truly believes in its position and would be willing to serve as a staunch advocate for the cause.
For some brands, there are issues that align so closely with their core values that their customers and “brand fans” expect them to be involved. Patagonia is a good example of that – an amazing brand with strong points of view on protecting nature and supporting outdoor recreational activities, so getting involved makes perfect sense and likely rallies the company’s already rabid fans. If you don’t care about protecting nature, wildlife and outdoor activities, well then… let’s face it, you are probably not shopping for Patagonia gear.
But let’s say you are a national consumer company selling broadly to customers with all sorts of views on life, values, religion, politics and social issues – how do you determine where to step in without stepping in it?
This is not a “gut feeling” kind of decision. It takes comprehensive analysis – and deep brand knowledge – but at a high level, it may be good to start by considering some key questions for the brand:
- What issues really affect your stakeholders and customers significantly enough to get involved?
- What part of the customer base will you alienate with social activism? Who will criticize or boycott?
- What are the potential negative impacts to the business, including sales and consumer trust?
- What are the potential reputational gains, and is it possible you may even attract new customers?
- And most importantly, are you prepared to “really” get involved with an issue vs. just talking about it?
Our point of view on almost any topic starts with what you want to accomplish and what really matters to you. We provide marketing, content and PR services that are meant to drive sales and help companies exceed business goals. So, the first question we would ask is, “What do you want to achieve and will getting involved in a social issue help you get there or just become a distraction for the organization?” Passions run deep on all sides of every issue these days – amplified by social media – so this has to be examined closely.
We lean toward concentrating on telling your story in an impactful way. If certain well-targeted issues help provide an additional platform for your story, and help you drive customer decisions or potentially turn more employees into brand advocates – then it should be considered. Otherwise, just stick to your own script, take great care of your customers so they become loyal advocates, and do good in the world in the way that comes naturally to your business. Sometimes it is okay let others take the reins on social activism.
If your research, analytics and data indicate that there are social issues closely aligned with your company’s core mission and beliefs, then devise a strategy to be very purposeful and intentional in your actions and treat it like any other strategic campaign execution versus a one-off topic you occasionally comment on.
And perhaps most importantly, these days you need to be able to back up your comments on social issues. That means going beyond words and getting involved with time, resources, commitment and action – the true definition of “activism.” That is the only way to prove to your audiences that the human beings behind your corporate logo think this issue matters not only to your business, but to the world at large.
In short, if you determine your brand is ready to immerse itself in an issue, then do it for the right reasons, make it relevant to your business and employees, and be consistent. If you find you can’t be true to your idea for activism, then it may be better to sit on the sidelines and keep preparing for when the time is right.