By Sarah Threet, Marketing Consultant at Heinz Marketing
Social media is a powerful tool we use in marketing; it’s a powerful tool because it has the ability to spread messaging far, wide, and like wildfire if done correctly (or sometimes incorrectly). Younger generations who have grown up with the internet, and who have been exposed to the expansion of social media marketing, have become more mindful of the messaging that they consume. Younger generations trend more towards conscious consumption, meaning that they are mindful of the impact of their personal consumption on society and the environment. Capitalism provides us with many options, so more consumers are spending time considering their buying power and the values of the companies they choose to patronize.
I was inspired to write about this topic this month after the unfortunate and terrifying incident at Club Q in Colorado Springs the other week. I am a queer person, and it personally impacted me very deeply to see violence enacted upon my chosen family – people who are like me. To no surprise, over the next couple of days, corporations began to post their condolences for the families of the victims lost during the shooting.
One of those who spoke up in support, changed their logo to rainbow-coloring, and gave a five-minute moment of silence at their game were Colorado’s own Broncos; they received mixed reactions. It may seem strange that a football team would show support and solidarity for the LGBTQ community, but this was the Broncos local community. Several LGBTQ folks responded saying that they could not care less about football, but that they would watch every Broncos game in support thanks to their courage for standing ground with the community. Several other fans made back-handed comments about how the Broncos should spend more time “not losing games” rather than “getting political”.
Did the Broncos do the right thing? How should a corporation respond to these events, if at all?
There are three main things a marketing department needs to take into consideration before responding to a socio-political incident:
- Does the cause align with your company’s brand values?
- How might your response affect your stakeholders?
- Is your company able to meaningfully act and influence the issue?
Brand Value and Authenticity
Knowing the appropriate timing to take a stance on a social cause can be difficult and anxiety-inducing because you don’t want the message to backfire. The closer the cause is to your brand identity, and the more influence you have positively affecting the issue, the more likely your company should provide a thoughtful response with an action list.
According to the 2020 Edleman Trust Barometer Special Report, “Brand and Racial Justice in America”, 60% of Americans surveyed said that how a brand responds to a socio-political incident or cause affects whether they will buy from (or even boycott) that brand. In particular, left-leaning, younger females were most likely to boycott a brand based on their response to an issue. Younger consumers have grown up with social media marketing and are more easily able to see through brand authenticity. Companies need to be very mindful about “woke-washing”, meaning, their words and actions must align.
For example, Nike took a big risk backing up Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was important that they stand with him as their brand identity is about sports, athleticism, and diversity. But consumers are becoming more aware of performative actions taken by companies to try to make more money off social issues. When Nike took the stance to support BLM and racial equity, consumers loudly called out their supply chain issues over social media, noting their brand misalignment with regards to hiring child labor in developing countries.
Another example of brand value alignment and misalignment occurred recently with Starbucks. In Philadelphia, there was an incident wherein the manager of a Starbucks store called the police on two Black men who only wanted to use the restroom. The video footage of it occurring went viral, and consumers demanded a response from Starbucks. Starbucks’s mission states that they have an “environment where everyone is welcome to gather, as a community, to share great coffee and deepen human connection”, so it was vital that they make a meaningful response. They backed up their apology back shutting down every Starbucks store in the United States to provide anti-bias training. However, not long after, Starbucks attempted to market a “#RaceTogether” campaign, where they wanted to encourage white people to sit down with a Black person in their shops and discuss race over coffee. This backfired and felt like a marketing stunt to many consumers, as most people do not want to go and have a deep conversation in a public coffee shop. While Starbucks can help prevent racism from prevailing in their workplace with training, they cannot directly influence systemic racism, and that’s why their #RaceTogether marketing campaign failed.
According to Harvard Business Review, brand authenticity is defined as “the extent to which consumers perceive a brand to be faithful to itself (continuity), faithful to their consumers’ expectations on the brand delivery (credibility), motivated by caring and responsibility towards the community (integrity), and reflecting values that consumers consider important (symbolism).” Continuity and credibility have more to do with the corporation orientation, whereas integrity and symbolism have more to do with societal orientation, and therefore is perceived as a more valid way of expressing brand authenticity.
In the conception of your company’s social justice strategy, you will want to decide whether you want the company to be perceived more as an ally who atones from past wrong-doings and acknowledges broad social issues, or an activist who is proactively supporting social justice. The more proactive your company, the higher the risk to losing consumers, but if done correctly, is perceived as highly authentic and will attract more like-minded consumers.
Consideration of Constituents
When considering whether to respond to a social issue or incident outside of the company, a company must always consider their stakeholders: from investors, to consumers, to other brands, the environment, and their own employees.
Consider that Cabela’s is a hunting brand – would it make sense for them to support PETA? Not likely. Consider that BP creates energy from petroleum – would it make sense for them to support saving the rainforests? Not unless they wanted to upset their investors. It seemed a little odd at first when the Broncos stepped up in solidarity with the Club Q victims’ families, given that LGBTQ issues and sports doing usually align, but they considered the community a part of their Colorado family. Acting out against their stakeholder’s best interests in the name of social justice is neither business-smart nor will it really feel very authentic to stakeholders outside of the company.
Additionally, if a company publicly supports a cause, but their actions within the company do not align with that publicly stated cause, it may stir up internal conflict or be seen as tone-deaf, resulting in employees leaving the company to preserve their own self-authenticity. Do not claim, for example, that your company supports Black Lives Matter but then ignores providing career growth opportunities for Black employees; your employees may publicly speak out and that will affect your perceived brand value.
I worked for a children’s hospital during the Uvalde shooting, and while they made a public response on social media, as was expected that they would, something that I found powerful, and a clear indicator of brand authenticity was when the CEO gave all managers permission to reasonably provide employees with time off from the workday. We were all deeply affected since we worked so closely with kiddos that it meant a lot to the employees that we had the time given back to grieve. I knew I could confidently say that the hospital I worked for really did care about saving children’s lives.
Meaningful Action and Influence
Don’t just say it – do it! Does your brand have financial power or other social influences in the realm of the social cause that would allow for your company to take meaningful action? Actions speak louder than words and consumers grow more conscious of which companies hold that power, and make mental note of who is actually doing something rather than just writing it into their mission statement.
Does the issue/cause align with your brand identity and affect your constituents – however you do not have a lot of influence on the issue? Find a strategic partnership with another brand that has similar values and constituents but might have more power.
Social media is a powerful tool that can amplify voices, instantaneously spread information, and increase collaboration across diverse groups of people. Collaborating with like-minded businesses can provide you with more influence and demonstrate greater brand authenticity.
Remaining Proactive rather than Reactive
Consumers can tell if a company is authentic or not based off what their actions continue to be after a socio-political event. Consumers watch to see if companies stray from their brand values and social justice commitments once the hype of an incident dies down. Therefore, it is seen as more authentic to be proactive.
Harvard Business Review posits the suggestion to assign a forecasting team within your marketing department or business development department. This team should include communications, marketing and brand strategy, and typically compliance. This team should be assigned to research how influential speakers players are speaking out on the issue and what their perceived influence looks like. They should work to align a social justice strategy with the brand strategy, research what social, political, and environmental events affect the elements of their strategy, and decide what their voice may uniquely contribute to the discussion.
Lastly, this team should be diverse in that it includes stakeholders who would be directly affected outside of the company and should get feedback from stakeholders who are influenced. For example, if your company wants to be actively anti-racist, it is important to include minorities on this team who can provide further insight on whether messaging or an action is tone-deaf.
Silence is Deafening – No Response IS a Response
There is an argument that no for-profit company should respond to a socio-political incident or cause, as they are “only in it for the money” and it can never been seen as “truly authentic”, however, the rising trend in younger generations is a recognition that corporations have political power in the United States, and therefore have influence over political action. Since corporations have this unique power, it is important that they provide a response, because the greatest tool a consumer has in the United States is their ability to vote with their dollar. Capitalism provides many options and substitutes for consumers. Your product or service could very well be the best of the best, and still consumers might choose your competitor because of the way that they chose to respond to a cause that that consumer cares about.
If you are still uncertain about whether you should respond, or what kind of part your company should participate in that is authentic, Harvard Business Review created a decision chart (seen below) to assist in what position your company should take.
Because silence is deafening, that is part of why I chose to write a blog on this topic. As a queer person who works in marketing, it is important to me that I am mindful of the influence of the messaging that I put out as well as cognizant of how I purchase things, and which companies I support with my dollar.