Brands take a stand

July is great! For the younger generations school is out. For those of working age, we get to start the month with an extended 3-day weekend filled with barbecues and fireworks. July is a time when most Americans reflect on the progress of our country and give thanks for the many freedoms we are provided. However, when the 2016 primary elections are less than a year away, the unknown future of our country is also in our minds.

Many running candidates have announced their decision in the past few months, including businessman Donald Trump. His announcement speech was most memorable to the media and political commentators because of his brazen comments on immigration.

I am officially running for President of the United States. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain

A photo posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on Jun 16, 2015 at 8:57am PDT

Whether you agree or disagree, love or hate Trump, or simply just know him as the man who told everyone “you’re fired” on that television show for too many years, you have to admit he knows how to fire up controversy. Out of all the republican candidacy announcements his is the one you will remember.

His stance on immigration and remarks to convey such strong beliefs has caused uproar in the political arena, as well as in his business endeavors. One of the first companies to respond was the American Spanish TV network Univision; announcing they will no longer air the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, they stated, “Today, the entertainment division of Univision Communications Inc. announced that it is ending the Company’s business relationship with the Miss Universe Organization, which is part-owned by Donald J. Trump, based on his recent, insulting remarks about Mexican immigrants.”

NBC was soon to follow suit with the decision to not air the pageants. The Professional Golf Association, ESPN, NASCAR, Macy’s, and Serta have pulled/ended/discontinued business with Trump. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city is reviewing dealings with him. “Trump’s comments do not represent the values of inclusion and openness that define us as New Yorkers,” says de Blasio. “Our Mexican brothers and sisters make up an essential part of this city’s vibrant and diverse community, and we will continue to celebrate and support New Yorkers of every background.”

In recent years many companies have opened up and taken a stance on highly controversial issues. A few that come to mind are Hobby Lobby (contraception), Chick-fil-A (same-sex marriage), and Starbucks (racial equality and gun control) – just to name a few.

After some research, I found two words to describe this risky business of associating one’s brand with a highly controversial topic: corporate social advocacy and pro-social brand. The first term, coined by Dr. Dustin Supa and Dr. Melissa D. Dodd, is defined as “the emergence of corporate stances on controversial social-political issues.” Jonah Sachs, an author and the CEO of Free Range Studios, describes the later term in his article, “2015 will be the year brands take a public stand on social issues,” as “the next step for companies looking to morally engage with consumers. Driven by marketers who are moving beyond claims of sustainability into strong stands on relevant social issues.”

Sachs describes this quite well, so I will start with his explanation. He categorizes two stages/types, those being traditional sustainable brands and pro-social brands. Traditional sustainable brands focus on charitable giving and green footprint — internal efforts. (Think of what Starbucks did in the early 2000’s with their Ethos Water and fair trade coffee beans.) Sachs defines this as a classic and safe approach. Fast-forward to today where you find brands “taking a stand on key moral issues.” (Think Starbuck’s “Race Together” campaign and their open letter asking customers to not bring guns into their stores.)

Sachs says these pro-social brands are more engaged with consumers when compared to traditional sustainable brands. Pro-social brands are “marking room for its customers to take on a heroic role by fighting for a more altruistic, tolerant, selfless world.” To sum it all up, in traditional sustainable brands the brand is the hero, while pro-social brands encourage their customers to become the hero.

But is taking such a risk worth it? Dr. Supa and Dr. Dodd conducted research to determine whether Americans’ purchase intent is affected by the sharing of similar values and moral stances. Their research identified that the American public is “8.1% more likely to purchase from a company that shares their opinions and are 8.4% less likely to purchase from a company that doesn’t.” This is especially true if you are targeting groups based on age.

  • Age groups of 18-25 and 26-35 years old had higher intention to purchase with a company that held common beliefs compared to other age groups.
  • Ages between 36-45 and 46-55 are less likely to factor in corporate social advocacy when making purchase decisions. However, they still show an increase in purchase intent when a company has similar beliefs and a decrease if different.
  • The 56 or older crowd were the most likely to engage in corporate hindering behavior when beliefs did not align.

Overall their study showed purchase intent is affected when companies take a stand with certain social-political issues. (Please read their research to find out what social-political issues are dicey.)

With all of this information, it is clear customers view brands as an extension of themselves, and if Sachs is right, more and more companies will take the risk of morally backing a social-political stance to further engage customers. As brand managers how do we maneuver that? Here are some things I would like to share, as I would consider them if I was advising a company or brand on whether or not to publically take a stance on a highly controversial issue.

When taking a stance make sure the idea you support aligns with brand values, not the CEO’s personal values. Paul Maccabee used the Barilla Pasta CEO as a case study in his article “Protecting your CEO’s Brand: 7 Lessons Barilla Pasta’s Crisis Teaches Communicators.” Besides pointing out that everything a CEO says and does can publicly affects customer loyalty and purchase intent, he showed that brands that align with customer values stand out.

As Stephanie Silver, Vice President of Envisions Creative Group puts it, “Every brand has its own voice and its own passions. For that reason, a brand should most certainly take a stand on issues that align with their brand promise and enhance the brand experience. But they must steer clear of all other hot button issues.”

Make sure the stance will “endear consumers to, rather than alienate” them. The previous idea is from Carrie Lennard, a Business Environment Manager. She uses the example of Chick-fil-A’s stance against same-sex marriage. She claims the adoption of such stance was an unwise choice considering generation Y and Z are their main target group and those age groups strongly support the right of same-sex marriage.

Don’t take a stance by attacking others. The recent Twitter exchange between CrossFit CEO and pop-star Nick Jonas is a great example of this. In an attempt to promote a healthy lifestyle the CEO tweeted a picture of a Coke bottle with the caption “open diabetes”. Jonas, who lives with the Type 1 diabetes, called out the CEO’s insensitivity and lack of education on the disease. The CEO then fired back a defense saying he was only referring to Type 2 and proceeded to accuse Nick Jonas of being bias because of past sponsorship deals with Coke. (Still unclear if the sponsorship part is true.) The whole thing is a mess and could have been avoided if the CEO had tweeted an informative statistic on sugar’s impact on the body instead of an aggressive and accusatory, it’s your own fault type deal that ignores many of the uncontrollable factors that contribute to the development of Type 2 diabeties.

It is good to take a stance, but you have to be careful on what and how you do it. The Starbuck’s Race Together campaign proves this. Most of you know the campaign was a big blow up, not that the intention was bad, but a coffee shop full of strangers just is not the place to openly declare your feelings about race in society. Nevertheless, I now see Starbucks as a company that believes in promoting racial equality, and because of that campaign, I assume they attempt to uphold such standards in their business practices.

The move of Univision, NBC, Macy’s, Serta, ESPN, NASCAR, and the PGA to end deals with Trump is just one way the companies are showing they are a pro-social brand.

Have any thoughts on this topic? Jot them down in a comment below!

-Caroline Robinson


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