Deciding whether, and how, to weigh in on political or societal issues is an increasingly common and difficult challenge for brands. When opinions are so divided, why risk alienating a segment of your customer base? But in today’s environment, staying silent can be even more damaging to a brand’s reputation.
More and more often, internal, and external stakeholders expect brands to state their position on a range of topics, from voting rights to racial equity to climate change. At the same time, hasty comments on social media or other channels can be disastrous for a brand—and send a communications team scrambling into damage-control mode.
To know whether, and how, to engage, brands must first understand the complex new landscape they’re operating in. WE Communications’ 2021 Brands in Motion report, a global survey of consumers and B2B decision-makers, finds that brands today face confusing and contradictory feedback from stakeholders regarding their engagement on societal issues.
On one hand, 65% of respondents say they’re more likely to purchase from and recommend brands that speak and act on the societal issues that matter to them, and 58% want brands to comment on those issues at least once a week. However, the study also found that many people remain skeptical about brands’ attempts to weigh in on challenging societal issues: 52% say brands that take such stances are just trying to sell more products and services, and 35% say they don’t think brands should act or comment at all.
Perhaps the most important realization of all is this: pleasing everyone simply isn’t possible. That said, you can satisfy your key stakeholders and withstand the scrutiny of your harshest critics. By clarifying your brand’s purpose and values, and building a strong company culture around them, you can develop an internal compass that will help you determine whether to act. Here’s how to begin:
Start from a Solid Foundation.
After the events during the summer of 2020, many brands expressed their solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and many were called out when it was revealed that their internal policies and practices lacked a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Before showing support for a cause or outrage at injustice, first ensure your company’s record on the issue stands up to scrutiny and is consistent. If you sign a letter supporting voting rights, but then donate to candidates who don’t vote that way, you risk being called out.
Get Employee Buy-In.
Your employees are your most important stakeholders. In the Brands in Motion survey, 87% of respondents say brands have a moral obligation to engage with societal issues that impact their employees. Understanding employee sentiment is critical to attracting and maintaining talent, especially when it comes to younger workers. Consider the open letter a group of young communications professionals sent to their employers, demanding that they stop working with fossil-fuel companies. Increasingly, employees expect to work for brands that are in alignment with their values, and when they see a disconnect, they often leave the organization.
Demonstrate Sustained Commitment to Your Priority Issues.
Engage on topics where you have demonstrated moral authority—places where you’ve made substantial investments and have a stellar track record. For example, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya speaks out frequently on hot-button topics like immigration, child hunger, and national childcare and paid parental leave policies. Ulukaya has the license to speak on these matters because Chobani has demonstrated ongoing leadership in these areas, offering some of the highest wages and most generous family leave policies in its sector, and maintaining a long tradition of hiring immigrants and refugees.
Build on Your Brand Promise.
After Texas essentially outlawed abortion, Bumble CEO Whitney Wolf Herd announced that the company was creating a relief fund for women seeking abortions. Bumble is an Austin-based dating app that is structured to empower women, so taking a bold stand to defend women’s reproductive rights was a natural fit. Other brands that took action on this issue include Dallas-based dating-app Match, and the ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft—brands that cater to a younger demographic that values freedom and choice.
Re-Evaluate Internal and External Communications Frequently.
Nearly 3 in 4 respondents said they expect brands to reassess their communications to consider societal issues at least every six months—and almost half said communication should be reassessed at least every three months. That might seem like a lot, but the world is changing fast, and stakeholders today are increasingly sophisticated. Not long ago it was popular to create “here’s how you can help” campaigns that involve the consumer. But after an oil company tweeted, “What are you doing to reduce carbon emissions?” the brand got significant pushback for throwing the problem back at consumers.
While the new paradigm may be daunting initially, it can also be liberating. Now that brand leaders no longer need to set their sights on pleasing everyone—which was always an impossible task—they have room to take bold, authentic action and help a world that desperately needs it.
Hannah Peters is Executive Vice President of Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose at WE Communications.
In her role at WE, Peters partners with clients to help them define what they stand for, embrace bold leadership, and use communications to protect their reputations and broaden their impact. Peters has 20 years of strategic communications experience, partnering with a range of Fortune 100 clients and nonprofits. She currently serves on the board of the Banfield Foundation, and previously served on the boards of KLRU-TV, Austin’s PBS affiliate, and the Annette Straus Institute for Civic Life.