People like to side with brands that mirror their own values. A business with a stance on social issues shows support for those who hold views similar to the brand’s. Advertise your ethical values on a contentious issue and those who share the same viewpoint as the brand will resonate with it depending on how deeply they advocate for those values.
However, when a business takes a stance on a polarising social issue, there are just as many people being attracted to the business as there are those who would rather burn it down. Then, there are those who believe businesses should not have a stance; businesses should take neither side and be neutral pillars in society. On the other side, there are people that believe all businesses should take a side. When it comes to navigating social issues as a business, things can be very tricky.
The opinion on social responsibility
There is a cultural shift towards social activism. In the scheme of progressive societal shifts, more voices means more pressure for those in charge to change things. Businesses, especially larger businesses, have greater reach and a louder voice. It is expected that those that can stand up or speak up are to do so. If they do not, they are implicitly in support of the opposing view. It is not enough for people to stay quiet. Everyone is expected to carry an opinion, especially in the public sphere. As the phrase goes, “You are either with us or against us.”
Some adopt the opinion that influential people should not use their influence to partake in social discussion. This includes businesses. Others think businesses ought to be neutral and instead social discussion should be had on an individual level. After all, the views of employees are unlikely to be homogeneous and once you represent a business as an employee, you are automatically assumed to support its views.
In the middle ground, many do not actually care whether businesses take a stance or not. Unless the business supports something that is a gross violation of those people’s values, they do not care about the stance a business takes. To these people, it may be nice that businesses celebrate Pride Week, but ultimately, they would not care if businesses did not.
Polarising your audience
When your business takes a stance on an issue and attracts people who deeply resonate with that stance, there is just as likely those who will be equally repulsed. Sharing the same views as your target audience garners more income and positive publicity in that group, but also chases away those who do not.
The upside is that a business’s stance on social issues can act as an advertisement. This allows businesses to attract more customers, possibly making up for the loss in customers. This is why it is generally safest to side with the majority or with the more “socially progressive” stance. Done right, a business can turn a social issue into a means of income. Of course, thinking of things in this way can be dangerous.
Actions speak louder than words
Transparency is important to customers. So is honesty. A business that takes a stance on a social issue that they do not care about is disingenuous. What people seek is sincerity. That is what they resonate with. People are often put off by businesses “virtue signalling”. When a business’s ethical stance is only a means of advertisement, customers lose trust in that business and view it in a negative light. They feel manipulated and today, many people are cognisant of the tactics businesses use against them.
When a business is not associated with certain things, advocating for an issue that they have nothing to do with can seem confusing. After all, good branding is consistent. Lack of awareness or caring about a social issue can lead to problematic marketing whereby a business completely misses the point of the issue. Pepsi’s ad involving police brutality and Gillette’s ad involving problematic male behaviour were viewed as misguided and only an attempt at appearing “woke” without necessarily understanding the issue in the first place.
If a business’s established core value intersects with a social issue, that is the perfect scenario for them to take a public stand. A business should always act with that core value in mind and so it is very easy for it to showcase its stance in more than just lip-service. Actionable statements are the easiest way to both advertise a social viewpoint and act on it. After all, it is necessary to practise what you preach. That is why environmentally friendly businesses can advocate for sustainable practices – because they do what they advocate for.
There is a divide in opinion on whether businesses should take a stance on social issues. One side says that businesses hold a social responsibility to participate in social discourse while the other says that social discussion should remain on an individual level and that businesses should remain neutral. It should be noted that not everybody has such opposite views regarding businesses taking sides. Many do not hold businesses accountable for participating or abstaining, but would also prefer if businesses shared their views.
Importantly, however, the stance businesses take on social issues should be congruent with both its branding as well as its actions. While taking sides and not taking sides both have upsides and downsides, the misrepresentation or insincerity that sometimes goes along with businesses who see social issues as only a means of advertisement invites disfavour from either side of the coin.