One of the most stressful things you can do as a communicator is prepare your brand to take a public stance on a societal issue. Everything is at stake: reputation, profits, employee satisfaction, stock prices, and all your company holds dear. Getting it right can yield amazing results, but getting it wrong can be disastrous.
Taking a stand on social issues as a corporate brand has always been complicated, but it’s more nuanced in today’s volatile social landscape. It’s filled with opportunities to take missteps at every turn.
Your audiences are more segmented than ever, and each of those segments expects you to understand the social issues they want your brand to take a stand on and how to do it the “right” way. And once you take that stand, everyone is poised to criticize even the smallest of perceived errors.
We’ve heard about the social justice brands making waves for years: Ben & Jerry’s, Nike, Disney, Patagonia, and others. In just the last couple of years, brands have taken public stances on everything from immigration and voting access to abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equity, and environmental justice.
As the social issues have evolved, so have the expectations of consumers and the public on brands and their roles in addressing these issues. It’s one of the most stressful things a brand can go through.
An Evolving Landscape
The landscape of brands taking a stance on social issues and the evolution of how they are doing that has seen a remarkable transformation in recent years. Just two years ago, surveys indicated that a significant portion of employees, around two-thirds, expected their employers to engage in and take stances on social issues.
The same study, part of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, reported that 57% of consumers would either support or boycott a brand solely based on its social or political stance. This data underscored a growing demand for corporate involvement in matters beyond the products or services they offered.
However, as things do, that same landscape has shifted once again. The 2023 Edelman Report points out that the public perceives that businesses need to do more to address pressing societal concerns such as climate change and economic inequality.
Half of American consumers now expect companies to “do more” when it comes to social issues. While people think businesses need to do more to address societal concerns, there’s an interesting trend in how many think those brands should take an official stance on the issues.
The State of U.S. Consumer Trends Report shows that only 36% of consumers believe companies should actively take a stance on social issues, reflecting a much more nuanced landscape of expectations and preferences around brands taking action versus taking a stance. Additionally, data from the Bentley-Gallup Business in Society Report indicates similar trends, with only 41% of Americans believing brands should publicly advocate for social causes.
It’s important to remember there are even more nuances within this data, including understanding that different demographics and subsets of audiences have different expectations for the brands they support—or don’t support. But what’s clear is that things are much more complex than they used to be.
It’s complicated. Now what?
Even the most prominent brands are not immune to missteps, especially in the context of a global community that is facing unprecedented challenges. While the concept of cause marketing is a powerful tool for brands to engage with their audiences and drive positive change, it’s crucial to execute it thoughtfully and with people at the forefront of the strategy.
Causes, by their very nature, revolve around people—whether they are internal stakeholders like employees or external constituents such as consumers, stockholders, or volunteers. In this age where consumers increasingly demand that brands step up and support causes that align with their values, businesses need to prioritize people above all else.
The missteps of some brands serve as valuable lessons for any industry. Whether Bud Light’s partnership with transgender advocates or Google’s well-publicized criticism over comments by its CEO about the Israel-Hamas war, the key takeaway is clear: brands must recognize that when they embark on social issues initiatives, the focus must be on people.
It’s not about the products or services they offer, but rather the people they serve and the values they represent. By keeping people front and center in their endeavors, brands can build authentic connections, gain trust, and successfully navigate the evolving landscape of social responsibility.
Taking a Stand On Social Issues
There are many ways that issues get brought to the forefront for consideration. Maybe it’s something that directly impacts your consumers. Or perhaps it is an issue that your workforce is passionate about. Or maybe it just makes sense for your brand.
If you’re considering taking a public stance on a social issue, it is critical to navigate this complex terrain with a solid strategy. There are no right answers, but a surefire way to fail is to jump in without thinking through some core considerations.
To ensure a successful and meaningful alignment between your brand and the issue at hand, keep these six key principles in mind:
- Know Your Core Values: The foundation of any successful stance is a clear alignment with your core values. Your values should serve as a guiding light, helping you make decisions and create connections that resonate with authenticity. Keep your values front and center and ensure that every action you take reflects them.
- Stay True to Your Mission: Your company’s mission should be your North Star, guiding your actions. If taking a stance on a public issue does not advance your mission or promise to your clients or stakeholders, reconsider your position. Things happen quickly, so whatever you do, avoid knee-jerk reactions and carefully evaluate the implications of your stance.
- Express Values and Mission Authentically: Transparency and authenticity are paramount when communicating your stance. Convey why you are taking this stand and who it affects. Understand your core audiences, anticipate their questions, and provide transparent answers.
- Listen to Feedback: Open yourself to feedback, both positive and negative, and be willing to adjust your approach as necessary. Authentic communication involves a two-way dialogue, not a one-sided monologue. Listening to your stakeholders and those most impacted by this stance is essential for building understanding and acceptance.
- Maintain Ongoing Dialogue: Taking a stand is a long-term commitment, not a quick fix. Investing time, resources, and creativity is necessary for maintaining an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders and reinforcing the importance of your stance. Consistency is key, so stay in the game for the long haul.
- Consider Your Target Audiences: Tailor your messaging to your diverse target audiences, understanding their expectations and values. Start with internal communication, which is crucial to ensuring your team is aligned with your company’s values and the specific issue at hand.
In a landscape where consumers increasingly expect brands to be socially responsible, taking a stance can be a powerful tool for engagement and impact. However, it must be approached thoughtfully, with a deep understanding of your values, mission, and the expectations of your audience.
The Future of Corporate Activism
As we’ve seen, the role of brands in addressing social issues has evolved greatly, even over the last year. Corporate activism can be a double-edged sword. Companies that take strong stances on divisive issues often try to meet the demands and expectations of the people they depend on for survival but risk alienating audiences with the potential for backlash and boycotts.
In an era of heightened social and political polarization, the uncertain future of corporate activism calls for a delicate balance between making a genuine impact and managing the potential risks and consequences of taking a stance. The path forward for corporate activism remains uncertain, with ongoing scrutiny and debate shaping how businesses navigate their role in social and environmental causes.
By focusing strategically on these key considerations and engaging in ongoing, authentic dialogue, brands can navigate this challenging terrain successfully and make a positive difference while reinforcing their core values and mission.