As it stands right now, the world is a lot more focused on repairing social inequality than it was a few years ago. While we can all (hopefully) agree that this is a good thing, there is a lot of dispute around the best ways to go about achieving it.
From a business perspective, the argument is more focused on the extent to which businesses can or should get involved in social issues, specifically questioning the reasoning behind doing so. There’s a lot of performative activism out there; businesses sometimes take a particular stance because it’s trending or to improve their reputation.
Whether or not your business should get involved in social advocacy is entirely your call - we’re not here to tell you to behave in one way or another. What matters is how you choose to go about it, and that’s where this article comes in.
What is social advocacy?
Social advocacy can mean a few different things depending on who you talk to and what your goals are.
The primary definition is centered more around brand advocacy. Designated brand advocates publicly share information about their experiences relating to a company or their brand identity in order to boost public perception of the business.
The secondary definition has a much larger scope. This version of social advocacy is describing the shared efforts of businesses, charities, and other relevant organizations to address systemic societal issues, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
While both definitions certainly have their own place and relevance in the business world, this article will focus mainly on the secondary definition and will discuss the benefits and consequences of taking a stance against the issues described above, and more.
Why should you take a stand?
We live in a divisive age. There seems to be constant discourse regarding the rights and responsibilities of a broad range of cultures and identities. These aren’t esoteric thought exercises; they’re real-world issues that affect real people all around the world. Those people are also consumers.
When a business takes a position on public discourse, there are repercussions. Some may be negative, especially if the stance is ill-thought-out. While not every business needs to take a firm stance on every social issue, it can be the key to brand growth.
This is because demographics play a large part in determining how important consumers consider the issues. A report by Kantar Monitor highlights some clear facts:
- 68% of consumers expect the brands they know to be clear about where they stand on issues
- Millennials are the demographic with the highest expectations for brand social advocacy, while Generation Xers report a 31% need for a public stance and only 22% of Boomers think it’s important
- 82% of African Americans, 79% of Asian Americans, 71% of LGBTQ+ Americans, and 69% of Hispanic Americans expect brands to be open about where they stand on key issues
With more people living by the ethics of their personal brand statement and buying from and looking for employment with brands that take a stand, it’s clear that there are advantages. However, there are risks.
Why shouldn’t you take a stand?
With so many consumers keen on knowing where their favorite brands position themselves on social issues, it’s clear why so many large and small businesses choose to make statements that take a stand. However, while a big brand taking a stance can be extremely useful for raising awareness and for marketing purposes, it can also be viewed much more cynically.
Known as performance marketing, there are plenty of examples of when brands have taken a public position on current events purely for the sake of it. But what is performance marketing? It’s often simply a way to generate clickbait headlines and get a particular brand into the limelight.
One of the most recent high-profile examples of performance marketing involved the Boston-based bakery chain Tatte. After posting messages on social media supporting the Black Lives Matter cause, the chain suffered tremendous backlash, largely from its staff. Comments from employees highlighted discriminatory practices against minority groups in the Tatte workplace and stressed the toxic culture.
The reason for this failure is very clear. While the outward message of support may have been well-intended, it didn’t reflect the day-to-day culture of that workplace. In those cases, all of your content marketing for reputation campaigns will be less effective because that social stance is not ingrained into the architecture of the business or its branding. It will be performance marketing at its finest, and the negative effects speak for themselves.
The answer to why you shouldn’t take a stand on social issues is easy. If your statements of support don’t reflect the reality of the workplace, then your words are empty, and audiences will be able to spot it a mile off. Inauthenticity simply alienates entire demographics through insincerity and blatant opportunism.
How to socially advocate
If you're planning on taking a stand on social issues, then you need to do it right. The first step will always be to know more about your audience. While ongoing customer research is vital when it comes to social advocacy, you need to dig down deep to find out the causes and beliefs that are considered important by your target audiences and existing customers.
When consumers are more interested in spending money with brands with similar values to their own, you first need to understand what those values are.
The next step is to analyze and assess your own internal culture and its ongoing operations. The risk of falling into the Tatte Bakery trap is extremely real. If you don’t align your company culture with the causes that you’re standing up and raising awareness for, the chances of a negative reaction will be greatly increased.
You don’t need to be perfect. You simply need to be transparent. If there are internal issues within your company culture or hiring practices, recognize them and take steps to solve them. The goal isn’t to just spread awareness of social issues. It’s to ensure that your customers are encouraged to also take a stand. In many cases, your marketing in this regard will not specifically generate sales.
Instead, your marketing materials and social media posts will direct your audience away from both your website and your sales funnel. Whether you direct them to advocacy groups they may be interested in or donation pages where they can financially support causes will depend on your overall goals.
When your social stance is integrated within your company architecture, it will reflect across your whole brand presence. It should be seen and felt across everything from the tone of voice that you use to the dynamic website personalization that reflects your stance.
The simple takeaway here is that if you decide that your business needs to take a stand on social issues, get your house in order first. Don’t be afraid to say that you're not perfect, as long as you're transparent about it.
Here are our top 3 tips:
- Emphasize your company culture: Of course, changing company culture to be more supportive and inclusive is not something that can be done immediately. It requires a complete restructuring, which takes time. Staff may need to be retrained via virtual training sessions, and everything from sourcing products, development, and every stage of the supply chain will need to be looked at closely.
- Ensure leadership is on board: It’s also vital that your restructuring starts at the top. Having customer-facing team members on board with social advocacy is one thing but without the support of business leaders, those attempts will only be weakened. Your leaders need to be champions of the cause as much as your marketing team does.
- Mistakes are inevitable: All social issues have extremely high levels of complexity, and a 280-character tweet in support of a cause can never be nuanced enough. You don’t have to strive for perfection. Mistakes will be made. How you respond to them will determine how your brand is perceived.
Make sure that you:
- Hire based on an inclusive and diverse company culture
- Create spaces where discussions can be held without fear of repercussions
- Allocate time to discuss social issues in-house
- Assign employees to vet messages and expose potential blindspots in company culture and communications
What not to do
Greenwashing is becoming a very popular term for companies that proclaim to have taken efforts to be more environmentally responsible while continuing with destructive practices. When it comes to social issues, the term “goodwashing” is growing in use.
Empty gestures are just that: empty.
Failing to put your social position at the forefront of your operations is something that will be recognized quickly by either customers or employees. That will lead to negative responses on social media and business platforms. Using online reputation management (ORM) tools can help to reduce the impact of that negativity, but actions will always speak louder than marketing statements and trending hashtags.
Take a stand and do it right
When it’s done well, the positive gains of taking a stand are there to be had. The stand that you take can help to build a stronger connection with your existing audiences, turning them into brand advocates for you.
Even when there’s backlash from a specific group, that’s not always a bad thing. Negative headlines for Nike after they supported Black Lives Matter resulted in customers burning their shoes. However, sales went up. Whether you're focusing on the class divide, trans rights, supporting minority groups, or promoting LGBTQ+ organizations, be honest in every aspect of your campaign.
Stand by social causes every day and you will win over the customers that you might never have otherwise earned.