Brands Taking Stands: Should Your Business Take a Side?


Conventional thinking has been that businesses best serve themselves by steering clear of controversy or stances that might alienate any faction of customers. But in what feels like unconventional times, conventional wisdom may not carry the day. In fact, a growing body of research suggests the safe play is no longer the best play.

In a Wall Street Journal article, Lawrence Parnell, associate professor at the strategic public relations program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management said, “It’s no longer a question of if, but where, when and how to engage on these issues and what type of topics to engage on … These are new challenges and things CEOs and boards never had to deal with before, so they are struggling.”

While some continue to maintain brands have more to lose than gain by speaking out or taking potentially controversial positions, a growing number of businesses are breaking their silence. Is the reward worth the risk? Let’s investigate some of the research.

Should You Take a Stand?

A recent study by Sprout Social found 66 percent of consumers say it’s important for brands to publicly take a stance on social and political issues. Sprout further assessed that reward does outweigh risk for brands, noting the most common emotional reactions to companies taking a stance were positive, along with “intrigued” and “impressed.” Sprout also found 28 percent of consumers who agree with the brand’s stance will publicly praise the company.

The 2017 Edelman Earned Brand study found 30 percent of global consumers make belief-driven purchase decisions more than they did three years ago, and that 60 percent of millennial buyers are belief-driven, along with 53 percent of Gen Z and 51 percent of Gen X.

With the number of belief-driven consumers rising, a Shelton Group study indicated 64 percent of those who claimed it was extremely important for companies to take stands on social issues were very likely to make purchases based on that commitment from the brands.

However, risk for brands was evident. When individuals disagree with the brand’s stance, 20 percent will publicly criticize a company, according to Sprout Social. A YouGov survey found 67 percent of U.S. adults support boycotting a brand with conflicting political views, and 59 percent would boycott a company if they strongly disagreed with the brand’s stance on a social issue.

Perhaps one of the most important themes to emerge from the research was that a brand’s stand on an issue should have relevance.

SSRN research found consumer reactions were impacted by the orientation of the company. Some organizations are considered more values-oriented than others, and consumers assume these companies are more likely to take a position. For companies that aren’t seen as value-oriented, political or social stands can be seen as insincere.

This means brands that decide to walk a limb on a social or political issue need to take a careful and considered approach to it.

How To Take a Stand

Taking a social or political stand means more than just tweeting out commentary or posting ideals on social media. Companies need to carefully weigh the situation because much could be at risk if even the best intentions are handled in a manner that strikes the wrong chords.

First off, fully understand that some customers or clients will disagree with your views and business relationships could be strained or lost. So, don’t take up social positions just for the sake of it. Think about your stakeholders and important customers and try to gauge how your stand might impact or affect them.

Decide which issues are worth taking up. The Shelton Group research found almost two-thirds of those surveyed said companies should support issues that align with the kind of products or services they offer. However, only 13 percent believe companies should support issues currently in the news. This is the relevancy alluded to previously in the Sprout research.

Make your position clear and stay consistent. Brands that are non-committal in their support of a cause or issue risk alienating even more people if they appear wishy-washy or trying to play both sides.

In Conclusion

Businesses have long stood largely on the sidelines when it comes to social and political issues, but sentiment seems to have shifted and more brands are taking up causes and positions. Businesses have opportunity to effect change at scale, and many are seeing opportunities to gain loyalty from their customers by taking stands. Yet, they also face the risk of alienating customers who disapprove of their activism.

“They will buy your brand, switch from it, avoid it and — at the extreme — boycott it over your stance on a controversial or social issue,” stated the Edelman Earned Brand study. “This is the new normal for belief-driven consumers.”

Research contends brands that get it right can reap rewards, but those who get it wrong can face scorn at best and boycott at worst. If you aspire to position your company or brand on an issue, make sure you do your homework and approach it with an informed and tactful approach.

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