In an era of unprecedented political and social activism, the role of brands is shifting. While consumers’ trust in government and institutions broadly plummets, their faith in brands’ ability to influence and drive positive change has soared. This year’s annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that 84% of consumers now expect businesses, and their leaders, to inform conversations and policy debates on pressing societal issues.
Addressing divisive issues head-on seems to have become the new normal for businesses who find themselves thrown into the debate. Take Nike’s choice of Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th anniversary campaign for example. Despite an initial slump in stock price – as well as some political and consumer backlash – Nike’s move show signs of boosting brand affinity and sales. The perfect scenario. Nike took a big risk that paid off…but was it a more calculated risk?
Not every brand is Nike. Not every brand targets Gen Z and Millennials as their core audiences – who express more liberal views on many issues than do older cohorts. Not every brand can use a local controversial issue with the potential to create buzz in the rest of the world – where Nike generates more than 65% of its revenue. But more importantly, not every brand can connect such activism to their brand purpose and brand heritage. In fact, many brands haven’t been as smart in their attempt to mesh business and purpose when addressing tough issues. Some strategies have simply fallen flat, and others have inflicted serious reputational and financial stress on the business.
So, if you are NOT Nike, does that mean you can close your eyes and focus solely on delivering a great product experience? With nearly two-thirds of consumers (64%) deciding to buy or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues (up from 51% in 2017 – Edelman Earned Brand), the answer is no. But the ideal strategy and the level of engagement differs by brand. So, is your brand ready to take a stand?
5 TIPS TO HELP YOU DECIDE IF, WHEN + HOW TO TAKE A STAND
1. Take a position and stand your ground.
With more than half (53%) of the public believing brands can do more to solve social ills than government, there is a real imperative for brands to be ready to address societal issues (2018 Edelman Earned Brand). This means digging into your brand purpose, building a deep understanding of the issues and operating environment, and investing in a data-driven communications strategy. Success means gaining alignment with key internal stakeholders and leadership on what your brand stands for and leveraging prescriptive audience and employee research to define who and how those values should be articulated in various situations. Employees are now one of the most trusted voices of the business among the general public, and they need to support the stand and be willing to champion it. And while not every company can afford to take a stand – for example, search engines and social media companies must guarantee a level of neutrality regarding any political debates – most companies should clearly articulate their purpose if they want to demonstrate shared values with their key audiences.
2. Stay tuned-in to what your audiences want by listening and understanding what they truly care about.
Exploring the nuances of what your audiences think and feel about societal issues is essential. Like any product or campaign launch, nailing the right message and striking a relevant and authentic tone requires finding the issues that sit at the intersection of what key audiences care about, what they expect from brands, and where the business operates. Once this is clear, brands should identify and quantify potential advocates and detractors on specific issues across key audiences (e.g. consumers, investors, media, employees, etc.). If and when the conditions to take a stand are right, brands must still listen closely to their conversation and adapt communications accordingly. Approaches will vary by issue and audience – this could mean adoption of proactive and visible stances on some topics and neutral or measured stances for others. When developing a protect response for a global technology company, we tested three different tactics for the announcement: proactive, neutral, or defensive. A tone that appealed to the wider audience groups created a clear winner, while our subgroup analysis demonstrated that a proactive approach would only be successful if targeted at specific demographics.
3. Like a player on the field, take proactive steps to mitigate risk.
Risks today develop faster and carry greater impact for brands and organizations alike. The expectation and uncertainty of risk is not new, but the volatility, the speed with which they develop, and the magnitude of their impact has increased dramatically. The current environment leads many marketers and communications experts to bury their heads in the sand. This “wait and see” attitude sometimes carries benefits, but silence often also introduces significant risk. Winning brands must move from reactive crisis recovery mindsets to proactive risk assessment focused models. Identifying expectations of the brand, assessing key political, social, or environment issues and their potential to impact the business, and proactively monitoring and allowing these insights to inform communications strategy will arm the organization to ACT, not just re-act.
4. Be bold, but rely on data – not luck and instinct.
Today’s consumer is craving brands to speak out and lead on societal issues, but it must be done with precision to be successful. A seemingly obvious, but oft forgot rule-of-thumb, is to stick to the original game plan. When an issue emerges, it’s easy to get swept up in the moment and focus on speed and response time rather than how the brand should be messaging – if at all. As in sport, speed and responsiveness are critical, but brands must tread carefully in today’s media landscape. If doubt remains, many options are available for vetting, refining, and pressure testing messages quickly among key audiences. When testing campaigns for a global food brand, we found that loyal customers and aspirational targets responded in opposite ways – so we needed to channel and distribute the messaging with different nuances. Testing potential issues-focused messages in a controlled environment might add few grounds to the communication budget at the outset, but it is ultimately a worthwhile investment and serves to insulate the brand from injuries and deeper, more expensive reputational damage.
5. Remain flexible, measure effectiveness, and adjust your strategy as the game goes on.
Reactions to issues, and how brands tackle them, will be in a constant state of evolution. Keeping a pulse on how the conversation around key issues changes – while measuring the impact of current communications outputs – enables brands to learn and adjust strategy accordingly, and to win moving forward. Like coach Bill Belichick, the king of the NFL, says “If you sit back and spend too much time feeling good about what you did in the past, you’re going to come up short next time.”
Whether you are a brand investing in a high-stake position or facing growing pressure to take a stand on a controversial issue, Edelman Intelligence can coach you along your journey with a data-driven strategy, leveraging primary research, secondary research, digital analytics, and business science to ground your decision-making.
Interested in learning more? We’d love to chat. Drop us a note HERE or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karim Ahmed is an Executive Vice President, US Client Strategy and Development, based in our New York office.