The words and actions of brands — including yours — matter. Politics and other areas of our culture are becoming more polarized. When you are authentic about your values and causes, you can build loyalty with your audience.
Not voicing an opinion could even hurt a brand’s credibility. According to a recent study by Sprout Social, 70% of consumers surveyed believe it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues. In that same survey, more than 60% thought brands had the power to reach large audiences and create real change.
How to know when to weigh in
Your organization needs to acknowledge every issue. To decide when to make a statement or speak up against injustice, your leadership team reflect on these questions:
- Who are we as a brand? Does this issue intersect with our vision or brand mission statement? Is this an important topic, and can we make a meaningful statement? Will we demonstrate to our audience that we are accountable for our stance?
- What do our customers and employees expect from us? Are consumers asking or commenting about our brand and the issue? Do our employees want us to take a position?
- What do we stand for? What are our company’s core values? Does it make sense for us to say something or stay silent on this issue?
- What will our silence say? A brand’s silence can speak more than a statement. Consider what saying nothing may signify.
- Who should say something? In general, the CEO or leader of the organization should make a statement. In the Sprout Social study, 56% said it’s important for CEOs to take a stand on public issues. But if individuals from marginalized communities or people personally affected by an issue work for your organization, consider encouraging them to share their stories or giving them a voice as well.
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When you opt to weigh in on a social or political issue, follow these tips to connect with your audience and learn from brands doing it well.
1. Be unique in your messaging
When Martin Luther King Jr. Day rolls around every January, brands predictably trot out some version of his “I have a dream” message on their social media to commemorate and pay homage. Unfortunately, that messaging has become so overused it barely resonates.
Before taking the obvious route, question whether you can message with impact. Be thoughtful and share with vulnerability to deepen your connection with loyal customers.
Example: This year, Ben & Jerry’s made Martin Luther King Jr. Day count. In an Instagram post, they discussed how diluted Dr. King’s message had become.
The company dove into some of King’s lesser-known quotes. They explain how his message wasn’t just against racism but also poverty and war. In a blog post, they describe point by point how the U.S. is failing to fulfill King’s vision.
Ben & Jerry’s took that extra step to explain how they think King’s message relates to today’s injustices, making it clear where they stand on those issues. Some of their followers may not like this message, but others are likely to forge a deeper connection with the brand because of it.
2. Make the message meaningful to your brand
Do you want to release a statement about a cause that aligns with your brand’s value? Stop. Take a step back. Figure out how to say something in the most meaningful way possible. How does this cause intersect with your brand? Acknowledging that connection will make a stronger impact.
Example: BabyNames.com helps people discover and research names for their children. When they posted in support of Black Lives Matter, they tied it directly to their brand. The post was a list of names of Black people who died at the hands of police titled Say Their Names. And for a gut punch, they pointed out each of those people was someone’s baby. Reflecting on how parents lovingly selected their children’s names and the tragedies that unfolded was heart-wrenching.
3. Be accountable to your audience
It’s one thing to say your company fights for a cause, but it’s even better to show how your company is doing it. And if your brand contributes to a societal problem, acknowledge what your organization is doing to combat it. Show your audience you care and are working toward change.
Example: Anheuser-Bush is the world’s largest beer company and maker of iconic brands such as Budweiser, Corona, and Michelob. They (obviously) sell alcohol and want to increase sales. But they also donate money and launch programs that fight alcohol misuse (including drunk driving, underage drinking, and binge drinking).
The company launched Global Smart Drinking Goals, a set of programs and initiatives focused on shifting social norms, consumer behaviors, and their organization’s business practices to reduce harmful alcohol use.
Their plan includes investing $1 billion in social responsibility marketing campaigns around alcohol and ensuring no- or lower-alcohol products represent 20% of their global beer volume sales by 2025. They also created an internal Alcohol Literacy Training Program to educate colleagues on responsible drinking. Each of their goals has clear deadlines and ways to measure whether or not they’re accomplished, a key part of being accountable.
It may seem counterintuitive for an alcoholic beverage company to even acknowledge alcohol misuse, let alone shine a light on the cause. But through those actions, Anheuser-Bush creates trust and connection with their consumers. As their CEO Michael Doukeris said in a webinar at Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, “There was a time in which companies could develop their businesses in isolation from what happens in society. That time has gone. We need to see ourselves as part of society, with all the benefits and all the problems.”
4. Provide resources to support the causes
Once you decide to make a statement about a cause, think about going deeper. Consider providing resources or support to people affected by your cause. These contributions can make your message even more impactful.
Example: Oreo celebrated LGBTQ+ Pride Month by hosting a sweepstakes, giving away boxes of colorful Oreos in the formation of various pride flags.
What they did next is where they had a real impact. They partnered with PFLAG, an organization for LGBTQ+ people, their parents, friends, and allies, to create a series of Instagram posts. The posts give better response choices to the ones many LGBTQ+ individuals traditionally receive when they come out. In one post, the words “Are you sure?” are replaced with “I’m so proud of you.”
Oreo also links to PFLAG’s Instagram channel, where people can find more resources to support their LGBTQ+ loved ones.
5. Don’t think you have to be political to take a stand
In our polarized political landscape, some think when brands stand up for a social cause, they are making a political statement. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Organizations can focus on making a difference in causes that don’t fall on a particular side of the political spectrum.
Example: More than 600 hospitals have partnered with Vot-ER, which helps people visiting ERs or health-care institutions register to vote. These health-care organizations don’t affect which way people eventually vote. They’re just helping people have a say in democracy.
6. Make statements your audience cares about
You don’t have to take a stand for every issue. It’s up to your leadership team to determine which issues are important to the brand — and your audience. Use your personas to see if the issue resonates with your audience. Of course, some problems are so critical that even if some consumers don’t agree with your position, it’s worth adding your voice to the cause anyway.
Example: Patagonia asked its social media followers to participate when the U.S. Forest Service opened public comment on restoring the Alaska Roadless Rule to protect the Tongass National Forest. Reinstating the rule would support wildlife, tribal sovereignty, and carbon sequestration in the largest temperate rainforest on Earth.
It makes sense that Patagonia supported this initiative. The company is known for caring about the environment and fighting climate change. The people who purchase their products enjoy time in nature and likely care about saving the planet.
7. Think long term
Don’t be one-and-done about your social cause. Before making a statement or posting about a cause on social media, think about how you will support this cause or fight this injustice long term. Maybe you want to make recurring donations to designated charities? Or commit to revamping your organization’s hiring and promotion practices? Or perhaps it’s time to offer internal training? By taking action, consumers will see the dedication and intentions behind the words your brand put out.
Example: Many companies spoke out against racial injustice during the Black Lives Matter racial reckoning of 2020. Two years later, Pepsi is still fighting inequality. The beverage company launched a racial equality journey initiative and committed to a five-year plan. Pepsi set aside $400 million for this initiative. Their efforts include making their workforce more diverse by recruiting potential candidates from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). They continue to promote their partnership with HBCUs and invest in the Black community in multiple ways.
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Finding the right way to make a statement can feel like walking a fine line. But with deep thought, internal discussions, and assessing the unique contributions your organization can make, brands may be poised to help make the world a better place.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute