Why Brands Need to Take a Stand
Gone are the days when companies struggled to take as neutral a stance as possible on social and political issues in hopes of appealing to the widest market. Studies show that today, consumers want brands to take a stand, and failing to do so can hurt a company’s bottom line. In fact, consumers feel so strongly about companies taking a stand on social issues that sixty-six percent would switch from a product they typically buy, to a new product from a purpose-driven company.
However, in doing so, it is important for brands to act strategically. This includes choosing when and where to engage and on what topics to engage. Consumers may find a company more credible when it speaks out on issues that are of greatest importance to its employees and customers. In general, companies appear to risk more by failing to engage on current issues than by doing so. Consumers are more likely to react positively to a company that appears to share their values than to react negatively to one that does not.
Consumers Want Brands to Take a Stand
Consumers demand activism from companies, and they don’t want companies to play it safe. They expect the businesses they support to weigh in on controversial issues. For businesses, it is important to ensure that their stakeholders will be behind them. Brand activism is also more than just making statements about issues. Companies will be seen as insincere if they do not put some action behind those statements, such as volunteering or donating money to a cause. One of the best ways for a company to identify what issues it will engage in activism is to examine its own core values and how its products or services reflect those values.
Ben & Jerry’s is a pioneer among brands with social cause. Their long history of such campaigns means they are viewed as a company that uses its products to raise awareness about issues rather than the other way around. In 2015, they launched a campaign to fight climate change. In addition to highlighting their own “endangered flavors,” ice cream that would become unavailable as climate change took its toll, they worked to get signatures on a petition demanding action from the United Nations.
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Companies must respond to the issues that are currently culturally important, and they must reflect their response in their own work culture. Customers are quick to call out a brand for a lack of authenticity. As Americans eagerly voice their opinions on social media about such issues as gun control, women’s rights, racial equality, and immigration, they expect brands to do the same.
Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” campaign and “Generations Apart” campaigns were aimed at demonstrating that even people who hold diametrically opposed opinions on issues could connect. Once their differences were revealed after they had already engaged with one another, all participants chose to talk about their differences. This reflected Heineken’s value of bridging a gap between people rather than purporting to offer solutions.
Airbnb launched a campaign that similarly reflected its mission with #WeAccept in response to the Trump administration’s travel ban. Airbnb’s CEO pledged to help people in need with housing.
Patagonia also took an aggressive stance against a Trump administration initiative, this in response to the reduction of public lands in Utah. Patagonia’s message on its homepage, informing visitors that their land had been stolen was consistent with its longtime environmental stance and was backed up by resources for action. “It took exactly one email to the board,” says Patagonia General Counsel Hilary Dessouky. “And the response was instant: ‘Yes. Absolutely. Go for it.’”
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Purpose-driven marketing is the key for brands tackling social issues. The 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study reports that more than three-fourths of Americans said companies were obligated to make a positive impact on society in addition to making a profit.
A similar number said they were more emotionally connected to purpose-driven brands and brands that took a stand. Emotion has been shown to be a strong component in customer loyalty. More than two-thirds said they were more likely to promote purpose-drive companies online than traditional ones, and two-thirds said they would change companies to one that was more purpose-driven.
An example of a company demonstrating its purpose-driven values is CVS Health, which announced in 2014 that it would stop selling tobacco products in all its retail locations since this directly conflicted with its mission to promote health. Following this initiative, in the areas where CVS had at least 15% of the market, cigarette sales dropped and nicotine patch purchases increased.
In the past, companies could not afford to be controversial. Today, they cannot afford to skirt controversy. By examining what they stand for and how that is reflected in their business, brands can choose the appropriate issues on which to take a stand. In turn, customers will reward brands that have taken a stand with amplification of their message and greater loyalty.
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