How should marketers and PR pros take a stand on cultural issues?

“We Accept” diversity drive to Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” campaign against the Trump Administration’s order reducing the size of two national monuments, there’s no denying that the political climate has galvanized marketers to speak up on the socio-political issues that engage consumers today. From small businesses to Fortune 100 corporations, brands managers fight for center stage when it comes to advocating on such polarizing issues as gun control, the Administration’s travel ban, LGBTQ rights, racism, protecting the environment and diversity in the workplace.What’s more, opinionated consumers are pushing brands to share their beliefs. REI, for example, was pressured by its customers to stop selling hiking products made by gun manufacturer Savage Arms/Vista Outdoor. In the wake of the February 14 Parkland shooting, Delta Airlines, Enterprise, Hertz Global, MetLife and a dozen other brands bowed to gun control activists’ insistence that they end discounts for NRA members.

1. Give your brand a reality check.

When you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one—especially when taking a stand on social issues. As Nirmalya Kumar states, “The problem is that aspiring brands want to be universally loved. Unfortunately, universal love is neither achievable nor desirable. Instead, great brands are loved by some and hated by others because they actually stand for something.”

Faith-driven retailer Hobby Lobby and restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, for instance, seem to have accepted that their conservative political views may alienate their more liberal customers, while forging a tighter bond with their core audience of family-values shoppers.

2. Know your brand and your customers.

 “Ultimately, brands need to prioritize narratives that will resonate with their audiences and that are authentic,” writes Doug Randall in a Target Marketing article, “New Brand Politics: When to Take a Stand on Public Issues.”

“That means taking an honest look at the topics of interest to the people engaged with your company … Invest time and resources into understanding what your target audience cares about beyond your product or agenda.”

Patagonia is often cited as the textbook marketer in this case because it exudes passion for the outdoors, as do its customers. To walk its talk, Patagonia sells “equipment or gear,” not “clothing” and it digs deep into activism, taking the government to court to protect wilderness areas. As a result, the company doesn’t just have a loyal fan base, it has brand evangelists.

3. Be intentional about your brand activism.

Strategic, well-executed advocacy campaigns can endear brands to their customer base. However, beware the executive whose opinions aren’t in sync with his or her brand and audience, and who has access to a national media platform.

Under Armour’s CEO casually commented during a CNBC-TV interview that a business-minded president like Donald Trump “was an asset to the country.” The resulting call to boycott Under Armour products spread like wildfire on Twitter. Make sure everyone associated with your brand, who has a public platform, is in tune with your company’s and your customers’ values and speaks to them consciously – not arbitrarily.

4. Prepare for fallout.

In our ever-more divisive world, even the most well-intentioned cause campaign will trigger someone to respond negatively. The likelihood that a few dozen or even a few hundred of your customers might complain isn’t necessarily a reason to drop a political stand or desist from doing what your brand feels is the right thing to do.Take Target, for example. Despite threats of boycotts, the retail giant has remained steadfast in its multi-year “Take Pride” campaign in support of the LGBTQ community. Target’s actions—from signing onto an amicus brief to redefine marriage (2014) to selling rainbow-themed t-shirts—are all centered around its manifesto, which gives Target the necessary platform to withstand anticipated blow-back.

5. It’s okay to be non-partisan— but do something to make the world a better place.You don’t have to be controversial. Take, for example, Whirlpool’s “Care Counts” program, which installs washers and dryers to make a positive impact on student attendance through the simple act of providing disadvantaged students with clean clothes.It seems to be working, as Whirlpool reports on its carecounts.com website that attendance rates for high-risk students increased from 82 percent to 91 percent during the 2016-17 program. While a laundry initiative isn’t inherently political, nor is it likely to achieve viral fame, it is authentic to the appliance company’s brand. It’s also deliberate about making the world a more positive place for people who need it.As a marketer, leading your brand into the world of social or political advocacy has its risks, of course. However, not standing for something beyond your bottom line, or not speaking up when you know it’s the right thing to do, is just as risky.Remember the words of Maurice Saatchi, co-founder of agency Saatchi & Saatchi: “If you stand for something, you will have people for you and people against you. But if you stand for nothing, you will have nobody for you and nobody against you.”

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