Do Brands Now Carry the Weight of Societal Change?

Kristine Glenn - Feb 28, 2018 3:47:00 PM





Updated 9/6/2018: I wrote this blog post a few months ago, but given the abundance of attention this issue is receiving once again because of Nike's Colin Kaepernick commercial, it seems like a good time to put it back out there for discussion.

There is a debate raging in corporate communications offices across the country right now. Is standing by the NRA a branding issue for their company?

There have been numerous articles over the past several months talking about how surviving in business today means taking a social stand.  

The definition of corporate social responsibility, seemingly in the minds of consumers anyhow, is moving far beyond the bounds of simply touting a fair and ethical workplace or practicing energy efficiency. 

Consumers want businesses to participate in the real societal issues and debates of our time — from marriage equality to gun control to sexual harassment in the workplace — and they want to do business with the brands whose values match their own. 

In a study from Cone Communications, 63% of Americans are hopeful businesses will lead the drive for social and environmental change, in the absence of government regulation. Weber Shandwick and KRC research also recently released a study, CEO Activism in 2018, that finds half of Americans believe CEOs can influence the government.

Larry Fink, founder and CEO of BlackRock, one of the largest money management firms in the world, recently sent a letter to more than one thousand CEO’s of the largest publicly traded companies pressing them to add a “social purpose” to their business practices. An excerpt from Fink’s letter reads: 

“We also see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement to infrastructure to automation to worker retraining. As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater.” 

So, when your CEO comes to you and asks, “should we get involved in this issue,” how will you respond? What is the potential impact to your brand and bottom line? 

How Will Consumers Respond to Your Stance? It’s Hard to Predict.  

Dick’s Sporting Goods recently chose to take a stand in the #NeverAgain movement, led by teenage survivors from the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It announced it would stop selling assault-style rifles, high-capacity magazines and guns of any kind to anyone under 21 years of age in both its Dick’s Sporting Goods and Field & Stream stores. Furthermore, the company called upon legislators to enforce common-sense gun reform, as well as mental health reform. 

Response to their stance has been mixed. Dick’s, however, did score a PR coup in terms of controlling a story and share of voice. They dominated the headlines for days on end and, if you assume gun sales account for a relatively small percentage of the chain’s profits, the move could lead to increased brand loyalty from moms and teens who primarily spend money on sporting goods and apparel. 

Not all brands become part of a political conversation by choice. Popular rideshare app, Uber, last year found itself caught up in the fiery political debate over immigration after turned off surge pricing at JFK Airport and continued to carry passengers during a taxi driver strike aimed at protesting the ban. Consumers against the immigration ban backlashed and started a #DeleteUber movement on social media. 

More than nine months later, Uber still hadn’t recovered all its lost market share in San Francisco and New York, and more importantly, the company saw only a 15 percent increase in sales in this time period compared with a 33 percent uptick delivered by competitor Lyft. 

Chick-fil-A, Target, Starbucks, Airbnb, EpiPen, even Tic Tac’s are some of the many other brands, which either by choice or chance, have a story for communications pros to study in this new, politically-charged consumer economy. 

Is Getting Political Right for Your Brand? 

This is a heavily loaded question and one to which I don’t have a definitive answer. If I did, I’d be sitting on a Caribbean island drinking a daiquiri not sitting in my basement typing out this article. 

As corporate communications counsel, you are going to have to sit down with your CEO and your executive team and ask the hard questions if they want to get embroiled in a political debate. 

1. Why do you want your brand to be a voice in the conversation?  

In the case of Dick’s Sporting Goods, they had a valid reason to become part of the conversation on gun control. Internal investigations revealed the company sold a shotgun to the Parkland school shooter just a few months before his deadly rampage took place. While the gun sold was not used in the shooting rampage, you can imagine Dick’s executive team, legal team and public relations team all contemplated the impact to its reputation and sales among suburban moms and teens if one of its guns had been used. 

PepsiCo is a great example of a brand that did not have a clear reason for jumping into a politically-charged debate, the discussion about how to improve police-race relations. Consumers revolted over a controversial ad they felt trivialized the Black Lives Matters campaign for no other purpose other than to sell another can of Pepsi. The company issued countless apologies, you can assume a few heads rolled and Kendall Jenner was publicly humiliated and reduced to tears. 

2. Is your proposed stance in line with your brand’s core values? 

This goes hand in hand with the first question. Is your reason for taking a stand tied to your core brand values? Is it something for which you have a deeply held belief and a track record of supporting? If you are trying to jump into a hot topic strictly for public relations attention or even worse — to make a sale — savvy consumers and the media may quickly call B.S. 

An interesting and tricky issue came up for technology firms Google, Facebook and Twitter, a few months ago after the Charlottesville riots. Hate speech was flooding their platforms and some of it was being pulled down. Politico wrote a fascinating article noting that by taking a stand against racist hate posts and pulling them off their platforms, these same companies could torpedo their own efforts to fight legislation requiring them to take responsibility for, and weed out, harmful online content from their platforms. All these brands emphatically deny being a media company and having any responsibility for the accuracy of the content posted on their sites. 

Side note: the responsibility of tech giants today to function as media companies is an important debate and one I encourage all communications providers to start beefing up on. 

3. Will taking a side alienate a significant portion of your customers, employees or stakeholders?  

This might be the trickiest one of all given the polarization in America right now and our division down party lines. 

Starbucks, which started in Seattle, one of the more liberal cities in America, faced a major backlash last year after it took sides with the same political faction that started the #DeleteUber campaign. The company’s CEO took a strong stand against President Trump’s immigration ban and publicly pledged to hire 10,000 refugees. Turns out it isn’t only liberals who like bitter, overpriced coffee. Republican customers were furious at Starbuck’s stance and a #BoycottStarbucks campaign began.  To mitigate the uproar, Starbucks came out and said it would speed up its previously stated goal to hire 10,000 military spouses and veterans by 2018. 

If you’re going to take a strong stance because you feel like it will benefit the company in the long-run, like Dick’s decision to come out for gun control, make sure everyone in the company has a thick skin and is prepared to respond appropriately to the attacks that will inevitably come their way. 

We Stepped in It by Complete Accident 

Crisis communications plans have always been important for handling the unexpected such as accidents, product-harm, violence or business disruptions. 

With brands now being drawn into political debates because their product shows up in a public protest (Tiki) or the President tweets about their candy (Skittles), it’s more important than ever to have a strong PR counselor in place who is keeping a finger on the pulse of public opinion and who understands your business from the bottom up. 

An informed response is critical. Not responding and waiting for things to blow over, likely won’t cut it.

Topics: Brand Strategy

Kristine Glenn

Kristine Glenn

I have an appetite for getting things done. As an advertising and corporate communications leader, I am experienced in bringing people, as well as animals, together. I have led cross-departmental teams and developed trusted relationships with C-Suite executives. I have 20 years of public relations and marketing communications experience, including providing traditional, digital and social media services to billion-dollar brands. I don’t believe in lengthy processes or convoluted platforms. I believe in hard work, empathy and love.

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