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Should your brand take a stance on social issues? Here’s how to decide

It can be challenging to decide which topics are appropriate to address or avoid altogether, sometimes leading brands to stay silent on anything remotely controversial.

Should your brand take a stance on social issues? Here’s how to decide
[Source Images: Getty; Ben & Jerry’s; Bumble]

Today’s world is more complex than ever before as multiple cultural moments unfold at the same time, requiring businesses to assess which subjects to speak on. While social media allows brands to immediately share their points of view, it’s important for businesses to pick and choose what they communicate on, in line with their values. It’s impossible to take meaningful action on every social issue presented in the news cycle. Focusing is necessary to truly make an impact.

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It can be challenging to determine which topics are appropriate to address or avoid altogether, sometimes leading brands to stay silent on anything remotely controversial.

“Completely ignoring all cultural conversations would be ignoring the context in which its employees, customers, investors, and community are living,” says Stacy Smollin Schwartz, a marketing and strategy consultant and professor at Rutgers Business School. “Brands that pretend it’s just ‘business as usual’ while their stakeholders grapple with pressing cultural challenges will erode trust, as that ‘human voice’ they have worked so hard to establish sounds a lot more like out of touch “marketing speak.”

To communicate on important conversations as a brand you need to define your values and develop processes to continually determine which issues are important to respond to or not.

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One approach to consider adopting is the DoorDash Compass, presented last month at the Gathering marketing conference by Kofi Amoo-Gottfried, the CMO of the food delivery company.

At the center of the compass are the brand’s core values—”empowering local economies” and “equality of opportunity”—which direct the company’s actions and communication decisions.

The top of the compass outlines the ways in which the company will promote its values, and the bottom are the coinciding threats to protect against as the brand acts on its mission.

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“In this environment, it’s easy to get pulled into every issue, or worse yet, to show up in a way that feels shallow rather than substantive,” says Amoo-Gottfried. “We built the DoorDash Compass to give us an organizing principle and framework that provides clarity around which social causes to design for through our business, and how to respond to external events.”

Consider defining what your core values are as a company on your own compass, then identifying the dimensions you’ll use to promote and protect these values. Think of these dimensions as an expression of your values as they’re necessary to inform the ongoing conversations you’re deciding to join.

“Brands should determine the extent to which its employees, customers, investors, and other stakeholders think this issue is important, and expects the brand to respond,” says Schwartz. “They should also assess how closely this issue aligns with the organization’s strategy and culture.”

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Once these values are established, answer a set of strategic questions for each of the issues you’re considering reacting to as the final litmus test on whether it’s relevant for you to respond.

When the answer to all these questions is yes, then that’s a topic that will get addressed, while any no’s means it’s a subject the brand should avoid addressing at this time.

For example, at DoorDash, these questions are:

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  1. Does the proposed topic promote equality of opportunity or protect against inequality?
  2. Does the proposed issue directly impact our business, mission, and/or our community?
  3. Can we make an impact through our core business practices?
  4. Can we commit to a systemic, long-term approach?
  5. Can we sustainably support the precedent and consistently apply it?

Whether deciding whether or not to participate in the Facebook boycott or responding to news of the war in Ukraine, these questions guide each of the brand’s decisions.

Adapt these questions in line with your own values so they’re helpful in guiding your team’s responses to external moments and the actions you’ll take to back up your position.

Despite following this process, be aware that there’s always going to be risks to joining any contentious public conversation and detractors unhappy with your perspective.

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“This doesn’t mean that every stakeholder will necessarily agree with the company’s stance, but if the brand is being true to its strategy, culture, and majority of stakeholders it should not be afraid of offending a few,” says Schwartz.

What’s most important is that you’re communicating on cultural issues that align with your values and are reflective of the actions you’re taking as a brand to make a noticeable impact.

“Brands who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk will inevitably get called out. So, if you’re going to weigh in, don’t do it for social media,” says Amoo-Gottfried. “Do it from a place of integrity and authenticity, do it because you mean it–and have the receipts to back it up.”

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Brian Honigman is a marketing consultant, adjunct professor, and LinkedIn Learning instructor.

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