This article was originally published in Crain's Cleveland Business.
Social issues are at the forefront of Americans' minds. Across the country, people are talking and mobilizing loudly about gun safety, climate change, reproductive rights, LBGTQ rights, COVID-19 guidelines and social organizations like Black Lives Matter.
A host of hot-button issues are important to your consumers, but should your business publicly announce your stance on these issues and take sides?
The answer is a definite maybe.
Maybe is probably not what you were hoping for.
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer about how businesses should engage with social issues, because a course of action depends on the type of business, your brand values, and your customer demographic. Thankfully, there are clear ways to assess if and how to align your business with current social issues in our highly engaged, mobilized world.
If you are franchisee of a larger company, you will have to follow their corporate guidelines and ensure that anything you say about social issues is legally approved.
Recent examples of companies taking a public stance on the controversial overturning of Roe v. Wade include Dick's Sporting Goods and Patagonia, both of which pledged to cover the costs if their employees seek abortions, and brands like Levi Strauss & Co. and Ben & Jerry's, which offered vocal support of reproductive rights.
If you own a business that is solely yours, you are not beholden to corporate policy, but you have to be your own safety net. So, spend some time getting to know your customers. What is important to them? How old are they, how do they interact with businesses like yours both online and offline?
Aligning with one side of hotly debated social issues can either alienate customers or make them fiercely supportive of your brand, in turn converting them into longtime brand advocates.
Businesses can no longer ignore this issue, because of the dramatic increase in social media use over the past decade. You must at least consider the consequences of taking a stance, whether you ultimately decide to take one or not.
Consider that, in 2021, 66% of U.S. survey respondents said that they choose brands that reflect their personal values. That was an increase of 32 percentage points in less than a decade. Even though the majority of consumers expect you to take sides, that doesn't mean you must.
Some of this is generational.
For instance, millennials compose the largest group of consumers in the U.S., with an impressive buying power of $1.4 trillion. As consumers, millennials want to connect emotionally with brands and the overall purchasing experience. Eighty-three percent of them want to purchase from companies that have the same values they do, so one of the best ways to reach millennials is by sharing your company values and openly supporting causes.
That may alienate certain customers, including customers who belong to the Gen X and Baby Boomer generations, but your gains for connecting with millennials can outweigh your losses.
The majority of each generation, from Gen Z to baby boomers, believes that companies should take a stand on social issues, even if that stand does not align with their particular values. Consumers appreciate the authenticity of supporting what your company believes in, which improves the always important word-of-mouth recommendations. Think of it this way: My uncle may not agree with the stance taken by a certain company, but him appreciating their authenticity and speaking about the issue could lead to me making a purchase from that company. So that's a win.
Like millennials, Gen Z, America's youngest consumers, seeks out brands that are authentic and support social causes that align with their values, such as protecting the environment and increasing diversity and inclusion. Recent events have both of those issues in the national spotlight, which presents opportunities for businesses that are willing to take risks to connect with these younger consumers.
Millennials and Gen Z have different shopping habits, but they both spend a lot of time on social media, which is where businesses like yours can connect with them. Getting to know your customers will help you better speak their language.
Here are five things to consider when deciding if your business should take a public stance on social issues:
A few brands came under pressure for something as simple as changing their profile picture on social media, believing they were supporting the Black Lives Matter movement without really researching the cause's meaning and what customers expected from them. Even more recently there was an ice cream brand that created a new flavor for Juneteenth but didn't make any effort to donate a portion of their proceeds or support the cause in a concrete way. If your business chooses to support a cause, truly support it with measurable actions.
One recent study showed that more than half of consumers want brands to take active stances on social issues, but what if your favorite brand doesn't fall on the same side of an issue that you fall? That depends on the individual and how connected they already are to the brand.
It's important to understand that you cannot please everyone. If you choose to take a stance, be able to support your views, be authentic and explain why an issue is important to your business. It may impact your employees, customers or overall brand.
Do not fight with those on the other side of the issue. Support your side without getting involved in anything too dramatic. You must also be prepared to remain firm in your support for that issue, because once your support is out there on social media, it's public, and that debate will remain active.
Director, Digital Strategy at BrandMuscle