The world’s changing. Gone are the days when companies could take a neutral stand or simply refuse to comment on social issues. More and more consumers are expecting brands to speak up and lend support to important causes. This study, in fact, finds that nearly 90% of Americans would buy products because the company advocated for a cause that they cared about. And what better way to reach consumers than through social causes—on social media?
However, considering the inherent nature of public debates (and social media), this could potentially be a very risky idea. Controversial issues have polarizing sides, and a lot of people are not going to agree with you. For example, after President Trump issued a travel ban on immigrants and refugees, Logan Green, cofounder and CEO of Lyft, tweeted this:
3/ We are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. https://t.co/0umGOlkhSx
— Logan Green (@logangreen) January 29, 2017
Now, take a look at the very first reply on the thread:
@lyft Why alienate half your customer base?
— Kathleen McKinley (@KatMcKinley) January 29, 2017
Being perceived to be on the “wrong” side of a debate can cause a lot of damage. On the back of the national anthem protests by NFL players, John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa John’s, initially blamed their dropping sales on the NFL’s “mismanagement” of the issue. This did not go down well, however, because it seemed like he was more concerned about his sales than the players’ protest against racial inequality. This led to severe backlash and he soon stepped down from his post. Not long after, Papa John’s multi-year sponsorship with the NFL was cancelled and Pizza Hut, a competitor, swooped in to fill the void.
It might seem like a good idea for companies to stay out of the dialogue in cases of controversial topics like gun control, but in today’s day and age, these brands are often forced into taking a stand by activists. For the purposes of authenticity, it’s a good idea for brands to take a stand only on things they truly believe in, in order to occupy a more natural space (more on that later)—but when asked to take a stand, silence, can be seen as acceptance, and that can harm a brand’s image. At the very least, companies should be ready to face such incidents with convincing replies, and ideally, with a bunch of proactive ideas for campaigns that show that they actually care about the issues, and aren’t making a statement for the sake of damage control.
Taking a stand on social issues is a double-edged sword. It can be highly rewarding, but if done incorrectly, can also cause irreparable damage. That’s why it’s important to do it right.
Before you take a stand on social media, it’s important to realize that any statement you make will result in an increase in social media activity. Supporters are going to be taking your side, and others will look to start off a debate on the conversation you’ve started.
In the middle of all this, it’s easy to lose track of customer queries that come your way. It’s important to ensure that your current customers don’t feel alienated because of the debate. That’s where a social media monitoring tool comes in—It helps you keep track of all the conversations taking place, so that questions don’t get drowned out in all the noise. A lot of social media tools offer this feature, so find a good one to invest before you need it.
Choose issues that align with your brand
It’s important to come off as authentic in your stand on issues. In fact, a statement that doesn’t seem authentic will make your brand look like someone who’s trying to take advantage of an unpleasant situation for your own advantage, and that can be more damaging than silence.
This can be tackled by aligning the issues that you choose to take a stand on with your brand’s purpose. For instance, at the beginning of this post, we referred to Lyft’s response to the travel ban. Considering that Lyft is a company that provides cab services, it didn’t seem like an unnatural fit for them to talk about this issue.
Does that mean that only travel companies can talk about issues like that? No. It’s just that whatever you say should be closely related to your brand. For example, Airbnb had a campaign on the very same issue, but they approached it from a different angle. They aired a video sending out a message of acceptance—using #WeAccept— featuring people from different ethnicities. A few days after this was aired, the company released a statement committing to providing short-term housing for over 100,000 people in need over the next few years.
The reason this was so successful was because it was a natural space for the brand to occupy, and it was backed by a real-world promise to support the cause. That’s how you deliver authenticity while taking a stand on an important issue.
No matter what cause you take up, and which side you choose to be on, you’ll always face backlash and opposition from people who don’t share the same views as you do. It’s important not to give up on the campaign because of these negative comments, and instead stay firm on the stance you take. If you back down too early, you’ll also lose the support of people who were on your side, and end up worse off than if you hadn’t said anything at all.
A recent example of this is how Nike made Colin Kapernick, the NFL star who was prominent in the national anthem protests, the face of their 30th anniversary commemoration of the “Just Do It” campaign. It went on to become one of their most famous campaigns of all time.
However, Nike received a lot of flak for this. Angry customers posted videos of burning Nike merchandise, or cutting the Nike logo off their products—but the company didn’t back down.
They kept the campaign running, and it turned out to be hugely succesful. That would have never happened if they backed down under pressure from people who disagreed with their campaign.
Debates on social issues are inherently passionate. That’s why, when you build a campaign around an issue, or if you’re taking a stand on something, it’s a good idea to use emotion to drive your message. Anything that you put out should not only reflect the values of your brand, your personality, and your stance on issues, but should also show that it’s authentic and straight from the heart—not a robotic response due to pressure from outside forces.
Once you choose your stance on the issue, it’s a good idea to think of the emotional drivers for your content. In the immigration ban example that we already saw, Lyft used anger and honor, and spun it as a story of them defending their constitution and standing for what’s right. Airbnb approached the same issue, but with a different emotional driver. They used sympathy, and their hashtag “#WeAccept” became extremely popular.
Emotions in general are powerful tools to use in your campaigns, so it’s a good idea to choose the right one, and then work on delivering it properly.
It’s important to remember that there are no hard-and-fast rules for taking stands on issues—we’ve merely shared what we think are the most useful things to keep in mind in these situations. Consumers nowadays don’t buy just your products; they want to feel connected with your brand. They buy into your personality and beliefs. So it’s a good idea to speak up, lest a competitor take advantage of the situation.
Think we missed anything, or have any questions? Feel free to leave a comment below, and we’ll be sure to get in touch with you!