You pick up a can of Coke to drink on the way home or kick on a pair of Nike shoes for your morning jog — dozens of times throughout the day you choose to support or avoid, a brand for many reasons. In today’s political and social climate, an increasing number of people base their judgments on a brand’s public stance on talked-about political issues.
You’ve undoubtedly heard a friend or family member say they won’t shop at a certain store because of a stand the company took on a major political issue. Others may say that retailers, sports teams, and other brands should stick to what they do and stay out of politics or social issues. Still, other consumers rally behind companies that take a stand against injustice. It’s hard to say who’s right and who’s not, there’s simply too much grey space around such a topic to make an accurate statement about it.
Consider how important it is for brands to speak up on causes that matter to you personally and how you would handle the situation in a professional environment if placed in that role. You may find it helpful to think about the reasons brands decide to speak out, the value in what they have to say, and when it has previously been successful and when it failed for major brands in the past.
Why Is Speaking Out on Political Issues a Controversy Among Brands?
In the past, most brands veered far away from creating discourse surrounding any hot topics or political issues. Most zeroed in on what hype and products made them money and avoided anything that might stir up controversy. While that attitude may have worked for a simpler time, today’s consumer expects more from the companies they support.
It has become an expectation that when customers are paying for goods or services, part of their dollar spent should also be invested in a companies’ effort to make a difference— either on a small community scale or a large global scale. A reported 75 percent of consumers seek out brands that publicly support the issues they feel strongly about.
Today’s society will hold brands accountable for speaking out and speaking up about what they believe and decide to support because of their intrinsic outreach potential. Brands have the means and the reputation to catalyze change, or at the very least, open up an important conversation.
While some consumers may support the idea that organizations should focus on their business and stay out of politics and social causes, those numbers are declining. Pre-COVID, statistics showed that 40 percent of people thought brands shouldn’t make statements about politics as part of their advertising. That means that 60 percent held a different view. With the ongoing pandemic and the many social and political issues of today, such as Black Lives Matter, the Me Too Movement, and others, many people have begun to rethink their stance.
A Changing Climate: Brands Under Pressure to Speak Out on Social and Political Issues
Consumers are recognizing the need for change from decades-old policies, behaviors, and laws. However, it often seems difficult to get brands on board. Company CEOs and managers hesitate to speak out due to the pressure they receive from two primary parties.
First are the consumers who want the brand to stand up against injustice and to speak up for those whose voices have been silenced. Oftentimes, the lines grow blurry when the brand must consider potential negative impacts their actions and public opinions might bear. A study shows that up to 67.5 percent of consumers would be less likely to buy from a brand if they didn’t agree with their political viewpoint.
Second are shareholders who, in most cases, have differing opinions on the issues at hand or on how the company should handle its platform. Some companies, especially major brands, might also tread lightly under pressure from politicians. Even smaller organizations may fear taking a stand against a local mayor or city council on a certain political or social issue.
Before a brand can decide on a feasible approach to address a controversial topic, it must first consider these primary consumers and supporters. After all, the brand’s primary objective is to create revenue— but what is it worth if the brand is not authentic in its public beliefs?
Why Brands Should Speak Out
2020 was a time of harrowing social and political unrest. Along with the pandemic, several other issues arose that were brought to the forefront of every person’s mind. Almost immediately, brands spoke out about COVID-19, encouraging everyone to be safe, stay home, and stop the spread of the virus. Shortly after the outbreak, more pressing topics made headlines, such as police brutality, racism, and the 2020 American election. But not all brands took a stance on these issues, as some decided to stay on the sidelines.
If the majority of people believe that it is the duty of brands to speak out on important causes, which ones should they speak about and how should that be decided? According to a study from Adzooma, 43.5 percent of customers think that a brand is just jumping on a bandwagon when making political statements while 23 percent think it is purely promotional. Nearly half of the respondents think that any response from the brands on major social or political issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights, isn’t genuine — but rather another mischievous marketing tactic.
For a brand to have an authentic response that will be believed by its consumers, the brand must make sure the cause they decide to support aligns with its business. For instance, companies making baby toys might promote recycling because so many of their products end up in landfills after just a few short months or years of use.
Brands must also consider how specific issues impact their customers, employees, and stakeholders. Is it expected of them to take a stand? When these factors are ruminated over and an authentic response is developed, consumers are more likely to believe and support a brand and its stance.
Reasons Why Brands Hesitate to Speak Out
With so much at stake, should brands keep silent and not speak out about important causes? While that may be a loaded question, the simple answer is “Yes.” There is a time for silence.
We all know the saying, “Better be king of your silence, than a slave of your words.”
Since there are so many social and political issues to focus on, brands can’t speak up on every single one. If they focus on those causes that align with their brand, however, it only makes sense that they avoid those that aren’t concerned with their company or industry. For example, while the baby toy company might take a firm stance on promoting recycling, a service-oriented company that creates software might not have the same focus.
Another reason to avoid speaking out is if the goal is merely to make another sale. If a company starts with the question, “How will this benefit my company?” consumers won’t believe what they have to say. The brand must first have a true belief in a cause before they speak out on it.
Why Does It Matter If Brands Speak Up for Social or Political Issues?
This question gets to the heart of the matter for brands speaking out about political and social causes. It’s the reason that more people are holding companies accountable for using their platforms to address controversial issues.
Brands often have a loyal following, which gives them a louder voice than what one person can amplify. They have more power to change people’s minds and, sometimes, even influence the laws of the city or state. They harness the power to start conversations, get people thinking, and take people a step outside of their comfort zone.
Perhaps the most important reason for brands to speak up against injustice and other pressing issues is because they have a responsibility to their customers and their communities. Since they have a voice, many consumers feel they are obligated to use it for the benefit of those that directly support them.
The Value of Brands Speaking Out as a Group
What if a company isn’t a major brand like Coca-Cola or Nike? Can they initiate change? Just as there is strength in numbers, multiple brands can come together in one large group for their voice to carry more weight. When the same message is replayed over and over by several different brands, people are more likely to believe it, opening the doors for the message to impact their own behaviors and attitudes.
Even small companies can stimulate change in the community when they work together. They provide support to each other, which makes it more difficult to ignore what they have to say.
Speaking Up for Change: Brands Who Have Won and Lost
In recent years, more brands have stood up for and against social and political issues. While some have made a long-lasting impact, others have been less successful with their messaging.
Starbucks – Getting It Right the Second Time
Starbucks is a company that has demonstrated a strong ability to learn from past mistakes. The first time the company tried to speak out on an issue, it fell short with consumers.
In 2015, Starbucks developed a campaign known as Race Together. This campaign came after the tragic murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The campaign enlisted Starbucks baristas to write the slogan on cups and engage customers in discourse about racial equality. The result? Customers saw it as a marketing ploy and were turned off.
The brand got a second chance in 2018 after a situation that occurred in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. Employees refused to give two black men access to the bathroom. When the two men refused to leave the store, they were arrested. Outrage against the brand led to a company-wide apology by Starbucks.
To solve the issue, Starbucks took it a step further and developed a new bathroom policy, and decided to shut down all US retail stores for a whole afternoon to allow for anti-bias training. This time, Starbucks handled this instance of racism correctly by taking the right course of action.
Patagonia – Caring for Our Planet
Patagonia is an outdoor apparel and gear retailer that used its position to speak up before taking political and social stances became a popular trend. Patagonia’s mission statement clearly highlights its focus: “We’re in business to save our home planet.”
Back in 2016, Patagonia donated its profits from Black Friday sales to environmental groups. Patagonia believes that excessive consumerism creates unnecessary waste and pollution, and would rather have customers buy just what they find necessary. Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket Ad is living proof of it. Caring for the environment is a cause that the brand and its customers fully embrace.
Taking a stand became a win-win for the brand because the company earned $10 million in sales on Black Friday in 2016 and gained 25,000 new shoppers. This wasn’t a one-off marketing ploy for the company either. They continue to donate to causes focused on preserving the environment to remain true and authentic to their mission.
PepsiCo – Proves Movements Matter
PepsiCo was quick to learn that the wrong approach can cause long-term damage. In 2017, the soda manufacturer released an ad with Kendall Jenner that was viewed as trivializing to real protest movements. The ad only ran for a single day but the backlash lasted much longer. Consumers’ interest in buying Pepsi products plummeted to the lowest point in eight years just days after the ad launched.
Despite the company’s claim that it was trying to promote global peace and unity, the execution missed the mark by a long shot. The campaign came off as tone-deaf and glaringly insensitive to those on the front lines demanding serious systemic change — something a freshly-cracked Pepsi nor a supermodel influencer could begin to address. This example shows that good intentions don’t always translate into positive customer reception for brands — especially when the final product seems superficial.
Goya Foods – Going Away?
While brands tend to get involved in politics and social issues, they often avoid backing a specific candidate because they know their favoritism will likely offend some of their customers. Unfortunately for Goya Foods, this brand didn’t consider this point of contention before showing public support for a highly controversial politician – former US President Donald Trump.
At a meeting at the White House, the CEO of Goya Foods expressed his support for former President Trump. Almost immediately, the company took a hit on social media, which was clearly seen on their sales report. When Trump returned the support by publicly expressing his support for Goya Foods, it further angered consumers and led to many boycotting the company.
Conclusion: Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is
When you think about the brands you support through your dollars spent, it’s up to you to decide how much emphasis you place on social responsibility. How important is it to you for brands to speak up on causes you rally behind? Consider the impact they can have and how much influence voices like yours wield as you support or boycott brands based on what they represent.
Topic Insights wants to help you think about the serious social and political issues of today and develop an informed opinion based on the information presented. Rather than trying to persuade anyone to think a certain way, our goal is to help everyone develop behaviors and attitudes in line with their values and beliefs. If these articles give you something new to consider, subscribe to our newsletter today!