How to Navigate the Murky Waters of Taking a Stand on Social Issues
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When Nike decided to feature Colin Kaepernick for its 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” slogan, it challenged itself and its audience.
It was risky. Nike could have lost enough followers to put its company at risk. Kaepernick’s supporters might have thought the branding was too trite for the issue at hand, and he has plenty of detractors who could (and did) leave Nike behind. But today, more consumers are looking for brands that support their values, and Nike’s risk turned out to be a reward.
Government-funded initiatives cannot answer the growing need for physical and social support across the vast array of issues around the world. And according to one study by Sprout Social, two-thirds of consumers prefer brands that take a stand on social and political issues. As a result, supporting a point of view on social issues is becoming more table stakes than nice-to-have philosophies, particularly for entrepreneurs wanting to appeal to millennials.
Stand firm -- even amid controversy
More and more companies are participating in social movements. For example, in 2016, Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh wrote an open letter asking gun owners to no longer carry their firearms into the brand’s retail stores and offices after a consumer’s gun accidentally went off in a store as he was trying on a pair of pants. Although some customers were upset about the decision, the brand stood firm. It also established a fund called "The Safer Tomorrow Fund" that's aiming to help nonprofits and youth activists as they labor to end gun violence in the U.S.
While big brands can be powerful forces, they often find it difficult to take a stand. They might feel like they have too much to lose if things go wrong, or maybe they have to jump through several corporate hoops before they can proceed with a new strategy -- which takes time and can involve a lot of red tape. On the other hand, entrepreneurs have an opportunity to drive the market forward and create actual change.
Startups can get behind causes more quickly for a few reasons. They are smaller and nimbler, and they can start with a clean sheet without being lumbered with legacy systems and beliefs. Startups are usually led by highly principled (and often younger) entrepreneurs who want to stand for something other than simply making money. And companies are waking up to the fact that they need to be “present” in society to appeal to customers and prospective employees.
To be this kind of catalyst for positive change, however, entrepreneurs need to do the following:
1. Align your stance with your North Star.
The stand or movement that you pursue should “fit” within your organization’s purpose. Is it relevant? Are there shared values? Can the organization positively affect measurable change? Social media has empowered the public to call out campaigns that miss the mark, so it’s essential that initiatives aren’t just lip service but are genuinely tackling a need that corresponds with the brand’s true north.
For example, Reebok’s #BeMoreHuman campaign celebrates and encourages women to be their best selves by promoting its brand ambassadors -- including stars such as Ariana Grande, Gal Gadot and Gigi Hadid -- and allowing them to share their personal stories of overcoming obstacles. Featured alongside the superstar ambassadors are successful female entrepreneurs who have built businesses that aim to empower other women. This campaign builds neatly on Reebok’s strong background of being a female-focused brand while rejoicing in empowered women.
2. Use your customers as your guide.
In tandem with being true to your brand, you should also get closer to your customers. What do they care about? How can you be supportive of their interests? And how can you link that to your go-to-market strategy? For example, look at how exercise bike brand Peloton pivoted from a product focus and more toward brand storytelling.
Peloton previously focused on its product. But during the 2018 Winter Olympics, it launched an advertising campaign called “Better Is in Us” to celebrate its customers and their inspiring backgrounds. The ads featured real stories from customers about how starting their day with a bike ride motivated them to overcome their everyday obstacles. Because Peloton’s customers were open to sharing stories with the company and the brand was willing to listen, it created a strong campaign about more than just exercise bikes.
3. Be willing to rock the boat (when appropriate).
However commendable, it’s a bit predictable for fashion brands to support women’s causes such as International Women’s Day and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Brands should be bold enough to provoke debate and disrupt the status quo.
Taylor Swift, for example, recently posted on Instagram about the 2018 midterm elections, despite seeming apolitical in the past. The shift, however, was beneficial to both her and voter registration; around 102,000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 registered to vote within two days of Swift’s post, according to Vote.org, and she’s already gained 400,000 followers on Twitter.
Many large companies are afraid to take a stand -- the prevailing thought is that taking a position on a social or political issue will only serve to alienate an audience. But with more brands such as Nike, Levi’s and Reebok rooting themselves in purpose to reflect their audience, they’ve only stood to gain more followers and help genuine causes progress in the world. Use your clout as an entrepreneur and take a lesson from these companies by being the change agent you wish to see in the world.