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August 4, 2016

When Brands Take A Stand: PR Advice For Issue Campaigns

Brand.Stand.PRStaking out a position on a high-profile issue is a time-honored public relations strategy. When done well it creates a public platform and builds brand visibility designed to resonate with customers. The right campaign can also humanize a corporate brand and engage individual customers and stakeholders in a powerful way by tapping their emotions.

Most importantly, a well designed brand platform linked to a topical issue can differentiate a brand among a sea of competitors. But in today’s divided social and political culture, is it always a good idea?

Studies show that Americans are 8.1% more likely to buy from a company that shares their opinions and are 8.4% less likely to purchase from a company whose stance diverges from theirs. And according to research by the Global Strategy Group, 56% of Americans now believe corporations should engage in dialogue surrounding controversial social-political issues.

I’m not always convinced by research that asks consumers how they feel about corporate behavior, or that poses hypothetical questions about unnamed companies. Much of the research touting corporate social responsibility is fielded by consultancies and PR firms who market such programs to clients. It seems more instructive to look at the data, and certainly there’s evidence showing principled companies can and do succeed.

Issue Campaigns Have A Bottom-Line Benefit

A study by McKinsey offers hard evidence of the bottom-line value of social responsibility. It shows that companies gain through four key metrics: growth; return on capital (through workforce and operational efficiency); risk management; and ability to attract quality senior talent.

It’s also been noted that a sizeable segment of the population feels that public-company CEOs have an obligation to speak out on important issues. We’ve witnessed the rise of the “activist CEO” in the actions of chief executives like Marc Benioff and Howard Schultz. This is primarily in response to the dominance of social media, and with it, a heightening of public expectations. There was a time when a corporation, as embodied by the chief executive, could keep his head down and quietly deliver quarter after quarter for shareholders. No more.

Millennials Rewards Principled Brands

Then there’s the millennial factor. Study after study confirms what we know intuitively — that younger adults are more inclined to reward corporations that seek to “make a positive impact,” as long as they perceive it to be sincere.

Of course, simple social responsibility may not include an embrace of a potentially divisive issue or movement. A company that takes a stand on marriage equality, Black Lives Matter, or even global climate change may find itself facing controversy. Yet I’d argue that a well-articulated position, even on a debatable issue, is a viable communications strategy for many brands today. To stake out a middle ground on minimum wage, or transgender rights, is increasingly tough. It’s no longer safe. So you may as well embrace a position, as long as you can do so with eyes open.

Here are some broad parameters for brands adopting an issue-driven campaign.

Make it relevant.  The success  of an issue or cause-driven program often hinges on its relevance to core customers. Advocacy works as a blunt instrument and as such may not be as useful for attracting new customers as it is for deepening relationships with an existing base of users. If a brand truly knows its customers, it can create powerful connections.

Know your customers. This is marketing 101 for most brands, but occasionally an activist CEO will wander off course to embrace an issue that’s not only controversial, but seems to contradict customer values. When Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy came out against marriage equality, it generated bad PR but probably didn’t hurt its business. On the flip side, when Whole Foods founder John Mackey opined against Obamacare, it provoked boycott threats because it went against the grain of Whole Foods’ mostly progressive customers.

Engage employees. Employees have enormous power as evangelists, both for good and for ill. Any position on a hot-button public issue should dovetail with how rank and file staff feel about the matter. A thorough audit among internal constituencies will minimize risk and can even galvanize employees to help carry the water.

Be prepared for pushback. It doesn’t always happen, but it pays to be ready for those who disagree. A strong brand can typically weather some debate in the face of a thoughtful and well articulated position on an issue of substance. But some companies are ill prepared for pushback and are tempted to reverse course when it happens, with poor results. Nothing is worse than a flip-flop. Wells Fargo showed some grit after it ran an ad featuring a gay couple that sparked boycott threats from Frank Graham. If you’re going to take a stand, be ready to double down.

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