Why Companies Need to Get Comfortable With Taking a Stand on Social Issues

In a world of hypertransparency, consumers are demanding that the brands they love show they care — and increasingly will avoid ones that don’t share their values.

According to a 2018 study by Global Strategy Group, 77 percent of Americans believe that corporations have a responsibility to take action on important issues. A similar share wants companies to stand up for what they believe politically, even if it’s controversial. “There’s no question that there is now a penalty for inaction,” said Julie Hootkin, a partner at GSG and one of the study’s co-authors. “Fundamentally, people very much want corporations to be engaged.”

In recent years, companies of all sizes and sensibilities have been progressively more vocal about causes affecting society, including gender pay parity, LGBTQ+ rights, climate change and immigration. What may have been hazardous territory just a few years ago is now essential if they want to keep the attention of their customers.

In 2018, gun violence alone inspired brands as diverse as Gucci, Toms, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Levi Strauss & Co. to take action. Gucci donated $500,000 to March for Our Lives ahead of the organization’s nationwide demonstration in March, two years after a brand employee was killed in a mass shooting in a Florida nightclub.

Dick’s, meanwhile, pulled assault-style rifles from its shelves and raised the age to buy firearms to 21 (from 18) following the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which a teenage gunman opened fire at a high school using a semiautomatic weapon.

Looking forward to 2019 and beyond, experts believe the emphasis on message will not only continue but intensify, especially as younger generations of consumers demand more engagement from brands. “Purpose is not a trend,” said Bill Theofilou, senior managing director at Accenture Strategy.

Toms End Gun Violence Together
Martin Luther King’s granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, attends a recent Toms End Gun Violence Together event in Los Angeles.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Toms/John Shotwell

Case in point, on Feb. 12, Toms — the shoe brand best known for its philanthropic “buy a pair, give a pair” business model — will gather a group of supporters in Washington, D.C., for a rally on behalf of a new cause: lobbying for universal background checks on all gun purchases.

Founder Blake Mycoskie was spurred into action in November when a mass shooting at a country-Western bar rocked his community of Thousand Oaks, Calif. Within weeks, the brand launched its End Gun Violence Together initiative, donating $5 million to organizations like March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety — the largest public corporate donation toward the cause in U.S. history.

It also dedicated its homepage and social feeds to a postcard-writing campaign that allowed visitors to send a note to their congressional representative urging them to pass legislation mandating universal background checks. To date, more than 750,000 people have signed on.

Mycoskie believes his mission struck a nerve in part because he found one of the rare bipartisan issues in America. According to numerous national polls, around 90 percent of the country supports universal background checks, and Toms’ messaging pointedly avoids the divisive topic of gun control, focusing instead on “gun safety” and “more sensible legislation.”

“If I felt that it was political or polarizing, we would not have entered this, because 50 percent of our customers are Republicans and 50 percent are Democrats,” said Mycoskie. “And if I felt like I was going to do anything with the brand that would alienate either of our groups of customers, then it would be a very bad business decision.”

In other cases, brands are more explicitly political. Last month, The North Face waded into the border wall debate when it paraphrased President Donald Trump as part of a tweet for its “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” campaign. “We’re building free, public climbing boulders in Atlanta, Brooklyn [N.Y.], Chicago and Denver as places to unite us,” the brand wrote on Twitter.

Patagonia, meanwhile, is suing Trump for eliminating more than 2 million acres of public land in Utah and Nevada. It also endorsed two winning Senate candidates in the midterm races in Nevada and Montana.

While Patagonia has a history of supporting grassroots environmental activism, its latest moves represent a major leap into the political arena. For CEO Rose Marcario, though, “it feels like a proportional response to what’s going on.” Onstage at the NRF Big Show last month, she explained that the company has a distribution center in Nevada and a store and many dealers in Montana.

“We were worried, frankly, that there was going to be more of an attack on public lands, and we felt like [these were] candidates who would represent preserving those lands and — being mindful of what’s happening with air, water and soil in those states — we felt like we needed to get involved,” she said.

While most brands would avoid such an overt political stance, Patagonia has the advantage of a long track record that gives it credibility.

Bears Ears National Monument
Patagonia is suing the Trump administration for reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Many brands that have cultivated authenticity have done so by playing the long game: Tory Burch traces the origins of her foundation, which supports women’s entrepreneurship, back to 2004, when she was first presenting her business plan for the brand.

“When I spoke to investors during the fundraising process, I explained that when the company became substantial enough to support it, I wanted to start a foundation — social purpose was a key component of the business model,” Burch said. “Nine times out of 10, I was dismissed as idealistic and naïve. And, yes, I was told repeatedly never to use the words ‘business’ and ‘social responsibility’ in the same sentence.”

She got her way, though, and the Tory Burch Foundation launched in 2009, quietly developing programs and initiatives like mentorship and networking events, access to capital and digital resources. In 2018, it hosted the Embrace Ambition Summit in New York, bringing together leaders to address issues like unconscious bias, ambition and equal pay. This March, it’s taking these conversations on the road, hosting a series of events at select stores across the country.

Despite the initial concerns of investors, Burch has found that social responsibility and business do mix after all. “We did not anticipate the foundation impacting our bottom line, but interestingly, it has been very positive for the business,” she said. “The foundation is incredibly important for customers who care deeply about giving back.”

Tory Burch
Tory Burch models the Embrace Ambition T-shirt from her foundation’s empowerment campaign.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

Hootkin noted that when a company can clearly articulate its motivations for getting involved in an issue, consumers are more willing to embrace it. “If you say it is really important to our employees, for example, people get that,” she said. “People want to work for companies and do business with companies who value and support their employees.”

It also helps that companies like Patagonia and Tory Burch know their customers well and can count on them to back their respective causes.

Nike, similarly, wasn’t taking as big a risk as many seemed to think when it cast Colin Kaepernick in its 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, according to several experts. While the former NFL quarterback is a polarizing figure for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before games, the conservative critics who reacted to the ad by posting videos of burning sneakers were never the company’s intended audience.

“For Nike, their most fervent fans would find Colin Kaepernick an apt representative for their brand,” said Jerry Davis, associate dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “The kinds of people who did not appreciate Kaepernick are not the ones likely to spend $200 on some new kicks. My sense is that the better-defined the target market for the product, the easier it is to figure out which stands to take without alienating customers.”

“I never thought [Nike’s Kaepernick ad] was going to be a problem,” said Jane Hali, CEO of the retail investment research firm Jane Hali & Associates. While Nike’s stock took an initial hit, it quickly bounced back — and perhaps more importantly, its sales today are thriving. “I speak to investors all the time, and they want to know, ‘Do you think this company did this because they want to impress investors?’ I say that would be the worst scenario. That’s not their job — their job is to connect with the consumer. If the company is focusing on the consumer, that is No. 1, and then everything else will follow.”

Colin Kaepernick Nike Ad
Colin Kaepernick Nike advertisement in New York, September 2018.
CREDIT: Robin Utrecht/Shutterstock

Consumers today have a “heightened level of activism” in their day-to-day lives, said Hootkin. “They are more motivated to march, to vote, to be engaged in issues, to work for companies who have values that are aligned with their own and to boycott companies.” Of course, brands aren’t always successful in tapping into this mood. Pepsi was famously forced to apologize for a 2017 ad starring Kendall Jenner over accusations of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement.

That backlash played out on social media, the rise of which has changed the way consumers interact with brands, tipping the balance of power toward the masses. According to a 2018 Accenture Strategy survey of nearly 30,000 global consumers, two-thirds believe that individual protest actions, such as a social media-led boycott, can influence how companies behave.

“Successful purpose-led brands see their customers as more than buyers,” said Accenture Strategy’s Theofilou. “Their customers are active stakeholders who are investing their time, money and attention in the brands they love.”

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