Social advice for brands: How to take a stand without falling on your face - Part 1

Consumers are paying attention to racial and other social justice issues now, and they’re demanding that brands do the same. Do you have your processes defined to address the issues correctly?

Kristina Podnar
July 28, 2020
- 8 min read

Don’t you hate it when the rules change practically overnight (as in within a single fiscal year)? For years, brands twisted themselves in knots trying to remain neutral and avoid controversy, fearful of upsetting any of their stakeholders or starting some kind of social media storm -- all while trying to engage in meaningful conversations with their customers.

But that began changing about six months ago, as COVID-19 upended daily routines around the globe. Hourly headlines reported soaring infection and death rates, schools and businesses closed, and those that didn’t close sent everybody home to work.

That was a significant factor in what followed: Everyone was home. All. The. Time. Binge-watching one series after another on Netflix in between trying to get a little work done. Boredom became both a secondary pandemic and a national pastime.

And then George Floyd was killed. He wasn’t the first black man killed by police, but, this time, the video was seemingly unequivocal, and all of America was home to see it. Moreover, they were starving for something meaningful -- something meaningful to do with their time, thoughts, and emotions.

It was the perfect storm. Public protests erupted across the country, despite pandemic lockdowns.

And organizations, already trying to get their heads around the biggest business disruption most of us can remember, felt like they had to make a public statement about what was happening socially in our country. Because, this time, consumers -- or, in other words, just ordinary people -- weren’t going to let them sit on the sidelines.  

Consumers are paying attention to racial and other social justice issues now, and they’re demanding that brands do the same.

Brands and social issues: By the numbers

For the last several years, brands have been working like crazy to build emotional connections with their customers. Now, they’re beginning to see that the relationships they’ve built are a two-way street. Customers want to know who they’re doing business with and what they stand for.

So...surprise! After years of training and experience in dodging controversial issues, the new rule is that you need to take a public stand on the issues your customers (and employees) care about.

On the other hand, does anyone remember Newton’s Third Law?

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

So, while brands can endear themselves to customers by taking a stand they agree with, customers with opposing views may feel alienated at best and betrayed at worst.

  • 55% of consumers say they’d stop doing business with a brand whose social positions were opposed to their own.
  • 34% of consumers say they’d spend less with those brands.
  • 85% of Americans would switch brands to one that supported the causes they believe in.

We all know there’s no way to please everyone, so you might lose a few customers. But you stand to gain a lot more -- if you do it right.

Taking a stand without falling on your face

The best way to navigate an environment where social activism is as important a part of your reputation as things like quality and price, is to approach each scenario you encounter through the lens of digital policies. For example, instead of changing your profile image to a black square because everyone else is doing it, you work through your digital policies to see if it makes sense.

Here is what I consider to be a common-sense digital policy approach when it comes to taking a stand on social issues:

Laying the foundation

The more you plan ahead of time, the less trouble you’ll have handling issues that come up unexpectedly. Things to consider include:

  • Identifying your organization’s values and beliefs as well as any obvious actions that should result from those beliefs: For some companies, taking a position is obvious. For companies that sell outdoor apparel and equipment, making a commitment to protect the environment is an obvious choice. Jewelry companies benefit from letting it be known that they source their gems and metals from ethical vendors. In a less obvious but equally important move, Whirlpool recognized a connection between dirty clothes and school drop-out rates. Since 2016, Whirlpool has provided 38,000 kids access to clean clothing. 90% of those students showed an increase in school attendance.

    On the other hand, brands that market themselves on “value” have a more difficult time, since demanding fair pay and safe conditions for the overseas workers making their products would put a dent in their bottom line. Those brands would do better to choose a different cause to champion.

    There’s another important consideration here. Robin Carey, CEO of Social Media Today, nailed it with this question: “What if your personal brand is that you really are a jerk?” What if you really do mistreat employees, overcharge customers (or drag them in with misleading ads), etc.?

    Some brands know they’re doing the wrong things. Others don’t know -- but they would if they listened to their customers. So before you brand yourself as a champion of any social cause, make sure your customers don’t think you’re a jerk. And if you know in your heart that you really are a corporate jerk, are you willing to change? (If not, you probably don’t need to read the rest of this article.)
  • Developing a framework for supporting causes that are in alignment with those beliefs. REI, for example, chooses its recipients based on four pillars that reflect their beliefs: 1) Rewilding cities and towns, and keeping wild places wild, 2) Connecting underrepresented groups to the outdoors, 3) Demonstrating nature’s mental and physical health benefits, and 4) Advancing climate action and sustainable innovation.
  • Creating bylaws for members of your board: It wouldn’t be surprising for board members to hold vastly different views on politics and social justice. But the last thing you want is a board member posting something that contradicts the organization’s public stance, or making a contribution to a cause or candidate who’s in opposition to the organization’s professed beliefs. Depending on the situation, the organization may need to ask for the board member’s resignation. But you could avoid all of that if you had everything expected of a board member laid out in writing ahead of time.
  • Determining social media guidelines for employees: You run two big risks here: Taking a stance your employees disagree with, and taking a stance your employees know is just for show. In either situation, they’re likely to take to social media to voice their frustration. What can you do to lessen the impact?
  • Identifying any laws or regulations that may prohibit your company from taking a public position on an issue. For example, 501(c)(3) organizations -- a group that includes most churches and charities -- are prohibited from making political statements, especially when it comes to supporting or opposing particular candidates.
  • Identifying standards for vendors: Will you continue to do business with vendors who take a position that’s in opposition to yours? If so, how will you explain the apparent inconsistency?
  • Deciding whether and how you’ll include your social positions in your ongoing branding and marketing campaigns. Including your social commitments in your regular marketing campaign can add credibility, helping convince consumers that it’s not just a passing phase -- if, that is, your actions match your words. Nobody doubts, for example, that Ben & Jerry’s genuinely supports liberal-leaning social issues. However, an organization that launches a campaign about making the workplace more equitable for women invites scrutiny of their own hiring and promotion practices. If they’re lacking, that campaign will be worse than saying nothing.

    In a nutshell, if you mean it and do it consistently, go ahead and brag about it! But if you’re not 100% committed, don’t draw scrutiny by bragging about your social responsibility efforts.

That’s a start on a proactive plan for taking a stand on social issues. The more explicit these foundational digital policies are, the less work you’ll have to do when new issues arise.

Following through

The more buzz you generate when you first take a stand on an issue, the worse the repercussions will be if you never talk about it again. Consumers will be quick to see it for what it was -- a PR stunt to generate a quick bump in engagement with no real commitment to actually do anything

Ways to keep the conversation going include:

  • Making regular social media posts.
  • Conducting ongoing social listening and joining in conversations where appropriate.
  • Including the issues you champion on your “About” page, so visitors can see what you stand for at a glance.

Just remember -- no ghosting allowed!

Navigating unexpected social media storms

Digital policies are critical to any organization with a social media presence. However, it’s impossible to have a policy covering every possible situation that might crop up. Nobody could have predicted, for example, the “perfect storm” of factors that resulted in organizations throughout the United States (and beyond) collectively asking themselves “What now?”

For a number of brands, the “What now?” meant jumping onto social media to express their support for Black Lives Matter. Unfortunately, many quickly learned that that wasn’t enough. For example, Brickson Diamond, chief executive of diversity consulting firm Big Answers, said, “I appreciate your Black Lives Matter post. Now follow that up with a picture of your senior management team and your board.” That response further underscores the importance that organizations have to back up their words with meaningful, sustained actions.

Without question, this has been a unique moment in social media history, and nobody can blame brands for being caught up in such a tidal wave of emotion. But let’s be honest -- it works a lot better if you have a process for determining how (or even whether) you should respond in such circumstances.

Need suggestions on how to start defining your process for addressing ad hoc customer sentiment and social events? Stay tuned for my next post as I will give you my unfiltered consultant’s viewpoint (tip: it includes lessons learned from over two decades of client experience).

Need some help developing digital policies or training employees on how to use them to navigate social media obstacle courses? Please get in touch -- I’d love to help.

Social advice for brands: How to take a stand without falling on your face - Part 2

Photo by Anton Repponen

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