Should your brand take a stand?

Speaking out on social or political issues is both a risk and an opportunity, says PR veteran Giles Fraser.

by Giles Fraser
Last Updated: 10 Dec 2018

This past year, a growing number of brands have taken a public stand on issues they believe in even if it put them into opposition to their government and, in some cases, the views of some of their customers.

In September Nike used Colin Kaepernick, the out-of-contract footballer famous for kneeling in protest of police killing African-Americans and other racial injustices. Many people were outraged but Nike’s online sales surged, suggesting they had the support of their core customers.

In November outdoor clothing brand Patagonia handed the $10m it had received from tax cuts to climate change groups to take a stand against Donald Trump’s position on the topic. This followed its very public endorsement of two successful Montana candidates in the mid-term elections. Both candidates were pro-protection of public lands, a topic very close to Patagonia’s brand.

A recent survey by Accenture Strategy in the US revealed that nearly two-thirds (63%) of consumers prefer to buy goods and services from companies that stand for a shared purpose that reflects their personal values and beliefs, and 62% want companies to take a stand on social, cultural, environmental and political issues close to their hearts. 

It wasn’t that long ago that brands were reluctant to speak out on controversial issues, even if they might have lobbied on them behind closed doors, but modern brand thinking has moved on.

Companies are aware that their employees want to know what their purpose is i.e. what they are contributing to society beyond the product or service they sell. They expect them to demonstrate their commitment to that in their words and actions.

If the brand doesn’t then employees are increasingly unafraid to vote with their feet. For example, in early November Google employees came out in protest all around the world against what they perceived to be the company’s mishandling of a sexual harassment case. The company quickly changed its policies.

The biggest single driver of this change is the emergence of millennials into the workforce and their views on what sort of company they work for (and who they want to buy from). PwC’s Workforce of the Future survey, released early in 2018, found that 88% of millennials wanted to work for a company with values matching their own. And they expect companies and their leaders to walk the talk.

How do you know which issue to champion?

There are exceptions to this trend. Relatively few UK companies have taken a public position on Brexit because they’re aware that, with a country split right down the middle, they risk alienating half their customers. Wetherspoons’ CEO Tim Martin, mindful of his customer base, has been a vocal champion of the Leave campaign whilst Ryanair, whose success depends on freedom to travel around Europe, has been a fervent champion of Remain.

So, the challenge facing the C-Suite is, firstly, to ensure they know what their purpose is and then what issue(s) they should take a stand on that relate to this purpose.

Here’s Unilever’s purpose, stating that to succeed requires: "the highest standards of corporate behaviour towards everyone we work with, the communities we touch, and the environment on which we have an impact."

If one thinks about the topical issues facing big business this statement makes it clear where Unilever is setting out its stall. With the CEO and CMO announcing their departures in December it will be interesting to see whether the company changes its strategy at all regarding purpose and the issues it champions.

When it comes to the selection of issues, these need to be relevant to the business, a logical development of their past narrative and integral to their future goals. Firms must be sure to practise what they preach, sure that staff believe this is the case and sure they are equipped to take the public attention when the story breaks.

The need for intelligent courage

One of the big questions facing a brand is whether they should be the first to champion that issue. Get it right and it’s a PR coup, get it wrong and it’s crisis time.

For every Nike and Patagonia, there’s a Lush. The bath-bomb brand received massive media and public criticism when it championed a campaign against undercover policing earlier this year. Whilst the brand has strong ethical credentials no-one could see a connection between the campaign and the brand and, after negative comments from the Home Secretary and police chiefs amongst others, Lush dropped it.

For leaders of smaller and less well-known businesses than Unilever the question is whether this topic is something they need to worry about now, on top of driving revenues and profits. I would argue they do.

Talent is hard to find and keep so an employer that is truly motivated to make a difference to society, however modest, will differentiate itself. Taking a public stand on an issue is a logical extension of this and, as the Accenture research suggests, customers are taking more and more notice of it.

My recommendation would be to try something relatively uncontroversial to start, perhaps a local or industry-specific issue, and see how it plays out with staff and customers. If it goes down well then consider turning up the volume and/or taking a more radical stance. If it is successful it won’t just drive employee loyalty it will be good for the business’ brand and reputation as well.

Giles Fraser is co-founder of communications agency Brands2Life.

Image credit: Shane Aldendorff/Pexels

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