In an uncertain world for brands, there are two truths. The first is that 53% of consumers now look to companies, rather than governments or NGOs, to deliver solutions to big environmental and societal challenges. The second is that 60% of consumers will stop buying from a company if they disagree with their stance on a social issue. We want you to stand for something, not just sell us something.
To be real and meaningful in taking a stand, consider a simple social-risk analysis. If the answer to more than two questions below is a no, you’ll have an uphill battle in persuading your employees or customers to get behind you.
1. Have you avoided white male groupthink?
Before you even get the pricey consultants in, ask a simple question: Did a bunch of male executives push this through, backed by some ad-bros professing it was “zeitgeisty” [not a word] and would help brand equity? Are the people in the decision-making process representative of the people you’re targeting? I can’t speak for the creatives behind the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, but I would wager that few had gone to a demonstration and fewer still had been victims of police racism.
2. Is taking a stand on this issue in tune with your purpose?
Google’s stated purpose is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” The company elected not to enter the Chinese market, for that very reason, despite pressure from investors (though that commitment recently wavered).
3. Will the action materially create impact on the issue?
And can what we do as a business to materially create impact? If saying something creates real and positive change, then say it. By stopping, or by starting to do something, you can help deliver on your promise. Show that you care, don’t just tell people you do.
For the impact rules, consider Iceland’s Rang-Tan ad. In it, the progressive retailer committed to only use sustainable palm oil in its products–deforestation in traditional palm oil production has reportedly pushed orangutans to the brink of extinction. It called for its peers to do the same. And it worked in collaboration with Greenpeace, a collaboration not without risks, to produce an ad raising awareness of these endangered great apes. How the brand delivers on its promise in light of recent news remains to be seen. But the combination of commitment and the act of speaking out has created a positive impact.
4. Do colleagues support this?
Employees are not only the lifeblood of a company, they’re your most important stakeholders. Have you done internal focus group testing? Do millennial employees–one of the most socially progressive generations–get and support what you’re trying to do?
5. Does the executive leadership of my firm believe in this?
If you’re serious about creating change, the CEO must be the driving force. They don’t need to be the face of the campaign, but they do need to be able to justify it to your investors.
6. Are we calling for action?
What are you asking people to do about the issue? When Ben and Jerry’s backed gay marriage in Australia, they wanted their customers to do the same. So much so that they refused to serve two scoops of the same flavor together until gay marriage was allowed.
7. Is my own house in order?
If you’re launching a campaign to highlight sexism or toxic masculinity in Europe, you better make damned sure you’re not using images of size zero women in sexually suggestive poses in your ads in China.
8. Do we have a partner to create impact?
You wouldn’t launch a new product without asking the experts, so don’t wade into an issue without consulting campaigners who have worked on it for years.
9. Are we going to be doing this in a years’ time?
Change comes slowly, and is not caused by an ad campaign or a single speech. The success of Heineken’s #OpenYourWorld campaign, to bring people with different opinions together after a divisive battle over Brexit in England, will be judged on exactly that–how many people they have brought together.
10. Would you keep the campaign if there’s a backlash?
This is the most difficult question. No stand, no matter how well planned, will be without controversy or negative reaction. And that makes the money men jittery. It’s likely that your share price will be affected, at least temporarily. But consider this. When backing Colin Kaepernick, Nike’s share price took a multibillion-dollar hit, falling 3% in the first few days. Three weeks later Nike’s share price reached a record high, online sales grew more than 30%, and the brand was valued at $6 billion. The lawyers and the financial advisers might have killed the campaign in its infancy had they known what would happen. But Nike’s customers wanted it, the company stuck with it, and they have been rewarded for their bravery.
Paul Afshar is the head of purposeful business at FleishmanHillard Fishburn.