The Challenge of Brand Alignment with Social Issues

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We’re nearing the end of Pride Month. The gun control debate continues to rage around the country in light of the most recent spate of mass shootings. Issues such as environmental protection and reproductive freedom, as well as movements like Black Lives Matter, are critically important in the minds of many Americans. Many of us who work for or with corporate brands have private convictions about these topics, some of them touching on our core values. This raises a thorny question: should brands themselves take part in the public discourse on social issues?

The challenge to brands is still relatively new. In decades past, brands and businesses were expected to remain neutral in the face of public debate on most topics. Only in the most extreme circumstances — racial segregation by schools and businesses in the South, for example — was the stance of individual businesses a major factor in social movements.

Expectations have changed dramatically in the past decade, as numerous studies have demonstrated. In its 2021 Global Trends study, Ipsos found that 66% of U.S. residents prefer brands that reflect their personal values, up from just 50% in 2013. Younger consumers are even more socially conscious; 83% of millennials agree with the statement, “It is important to me that companies I buy from align with my values,” according to 5WPR’s 2020 Consumer Culture Report.

The past 8 years have seen increased consumer awareness of business ethics.

Some issues fall in line with the typical priorities of brand messaging more readily than others. Many brands, for instance, are large-scale consumers and producers of energy, resources, and manufactured goods. Consumers have spoken, with nearly 80% agreeing that sustainability is an important factor in purchase considerations. In order to win their goodwill, brands must hold themselves accountable for the environmental impact of doing business. It makes sense, therefore, that brands would devote effort towards building sustainable practices such as recycling and energy conservation, and towards promoting awareness of these practices.

Another contemporary topic where public statements have come more naturally for many companies is the invasion of Ukraine. For example, Ukraine’s importance as a center of tech talent means that many tech companies have direct connections to the country’s threatened inhabitants. Expressions of solidarity from companies like Ahrefs, whose CEO Dmytro Gerasymenko is Ukrainian, are clearly driven by priorities other than good PR.

Social issues like gay rights, reproductive freedom, and Black Lives Matter, which may not have any clear link to a brand’s central identity, present a trickier challenge. Brands might highlight their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in hiring and promotion, for example, but they may hesitate to declare a position on the larger social issues these efforts are linked to. Such hesitation is born of reasonable concerns. After all, we occupy a cultural moment when the notion of corporate responsibility is undergoing a significant transformation. Stances declared with sincere intentions may be perceived as inauthentic examples of virtue signaling. The same consumers who look for brands to align with their values can be harshly punitive towards brands that try and fail.

Some actions that seem innocuous may inadvertently put a brand’s reputation at risk. During the peak of the national conversation around Black Lives Matter, many social media users changed their profile pictures to a black square as an expression of solidarity. Though this might be a meaningful act for an individual, consumers know that brands wield far more power and influence than any single person. Easy gestures like changing a profile picture, offering no long-term commitment, come across as a choice to withhold that influence, and will likely be perceived as self-serving.

What’s more, opting out of the conversation may not be an option, especially for causes that have high priority in the public consciousness. A report from Kantar found that 54% of consumers want brands to take an active position on issues such as #MeToo and racial injustice.

The most straightforward stances are those that reinforce a brand’s core values. Examples include Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, whose support for social causes is built into the company’s mission. But companies don’t necessarily need a world-saving mission statement in order to effectively support important causes. What makes the difference in public perception is striking the right note of authenticity.

Nike did this when, in 2020, they were among the first to issue a public statement on Black Lives Matter, in the form of an ad that declared, “For once, Don’t Do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. … Don’t think you can’t be part of the change.” Not only did Nike take a strong position; the company backed it up with action by helping to raise $140 million to support organizations working towards economic empowerment and social justice.

Increasingly, brands with high public visibility must articulate their positions on issues the public cares about while avoiding the appearance of exploiting public sentiment for purposes of self-promotion. And whether or not a formal statement makes sense on every issue, companies should be prepared for the day when a consumer comes to them to ask a question or offer feedback about a brand’s actions or values, perhaps in the form of a social post that is there for all to see.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.