For businesses in nearly every industry, the question of “what do you do?” frequently comes second to “what do you believe in?”
This is understandable in many ways. Research suggests consumers don’t want virtue signaling, but clear and sincere positions taken by the brands they engage with. According to Barrons, brand positions could influence the buying decisions of as many as 60% of Americans. Edelman’s Trust Barometer suggested in 2019 that 54% of consumers even wanted CEOs to stake out social positions.
None of this is to say you should not consider your stances carefully, and calibrate your responses. And consumers that expect you to take a stand are not a monolithic group. Researcher Derrick Feldman recently noted in a Candid article that while “activist” audience members will expect you to have well-developed stances on such issues as climate change, supply chain issues, and human rights, consumers who are socially conscious or “social issue-interested” only want to see how involved you are with the specific concerns they care about.
The following three questions will guide you, whether it is your first time as a company taking a stand on a social issue, or if you’re facing a new dilemma on how, or whether, to speak out.
Why are you taking the stance?
Generally speaking, this answer should come quickly to you. If it doesn’t, it’s a sign that you have more thinking to do. If there’s any delay in your speaking out, such as your company waiting a few days to put out a statement, you could be expected to account for that. A crisis communication strategy, combined with a deep dive into how you got there to start with, may be in order if you’re only taking a stance in response to public member criticism.
Younger or smaller companies may not face the same pressure to speak out on all but the most upfront issues. Even then, if it isn’t sincere and authentic, your stance will quickly fall apart upon scrutiny. Drafting an impassioned post on LinkedIn calling for more diverse hiring practices may draw curious looks if it becomes clear that your company doesn’t engage in them yourself, for instance.
“Being real” is how you get, and keep, audience respect.
What reaction will you generate – and can you handle it?
Right or wrong, once you wade out into a debate, you’re responsible for what you say afterward. You shouldn’t start something you cannot finish. Trolling can be safely ignored, but thoughtful criticism of your stance is to be expected and should be engaged with. If you don’t feel you can do so – or worse, that you risk alienating your audiences – you have to weigh this against your desire to take a stand.
How much influence can you have?
When it comes to issues like racial inequality, economic and wage justice, healthy working environments, and women’s health issues, your employees are likely to appreciate some sort of stance, as will your audiences. But the question isn’t so much about the things you say. It’s what you do.
One of the biggest things about taking a brand position is that making it meaningful involves a certain amount of proactivity and responsibility. Take the example of climate change and environmental sustainability. If you’re a big business, do you have a path toward net zero? What is being done to reduce your footprint in both your backyard and in the wider world? For smaller businesses, is volunteering with local conservation organizations part of your culture? Do you encourage employees to give back to their communities?
Brand positions are not static; they are calls to action.
Companies do not operate in a vacuum, and social issues are inescapable for corporate brands precisely because they impact everyone. A company is a member of its community, and so are its employees.
The biggest rule of thumb is to practice what you preach. Never take a stand merely because it’s what others are doing. When you do choose to speak up, ensure it comes from both the heart and head.
And remember, the statement “we believe” is not as meaningful as “we will.”