Buying a belief: How and why brands are taking a stand

Over the last several years, there has been a noticeable rise in brands taking public stands on political, social and environmental issues — from Airbnb offering to host refugees affected by President Trump’s “Muslim Ban” to Gillette’s ad tackling toxic masculinity and negative male stereotypes.

Consumer brands, in particular, have come to understand that buyer expectations are changing: people aren’t simply purchasing a product or service, they’re looking to use their purchasing power on belief-driven brands. Fueled and ruled by a set of shared values, consumers are now loyal for reasons beyond the product itself. Millennials, known for their extremely high brand expectations, are projected to outnumber baby boomers this year. Eighty-one percent of millennials expect their preferred companies to make public declarations of corporate citizenship. So, it’s no surprise that brands are starting to understand the bottom line opportunities for taking a stand on issues and causes important to their customers.

Here are a few examples of best practices that brands have successfully employed to navigate and support socio-political issues.

Walk the talk

Consumers notice when brands don’t practice what they preach. This is especially true for Millennials and Gen Z — a digital native audience that recognizes immediately when brands pay lip service to a cause, but don’t go beyond that. Simply put, making a public statement without a commitment of resources signals intention, but does not demonstrate credible commitment. Successful companies will ensure that their stance on socio-political issues is rooted in their brand strategy and that they take credible actions to back their positions.

Patagonia serves as an example of a brand who walks the talk along almost every step of the value chain and customer experience. When the outdoor clothing company received a $10 million tax cut under Trump’s tax reform plan, it decidedly invested those savings into the planet. And it didn’t stop there. As part of Patagonia’s ongoing commitment, the company donates 1% of its total annual sales revenues to grassroots environmental groups.

Credible protagonists

It’s often best for brands not to act as the main protagonist but to get off center-stage and let others do the talking. Specifically, individuals or groups affected by a certain issue or spearheading a particular cause that are credibly aligned and relatable. A good facilitator will know how to actively listen. A great facilitator will create platforms that spark conversations and interactions, or provide opportunities to turn that conversation into action.

When Nike launched its 30th anniversary campaign, it prominently featured NFL star Colin Kaepernick across television commercials, print and digital formats. Known for kneeling during the national anthem in protest against racial injustice and police brutality, Kaepernick became a symbol for enduring resistance, standing up for what one believes to be right and making a sacrifice for a greater good. The campaign was successful because it let Kaepernick’s actions and words speak for themselves, which in turn allowed Nike to publicly and credibly solidify these core brand values. This approach was especially well received among its growing customer base of young, diverse, liberal Millennials with whom Kaepernick is very popular.

Tone at the Top

As consumers increasingly look to businesses to stand up for worthy causes and values, and have lower expectations in the ability and/or willingness of governments to do so, executives are more closely evaluating the risks and benefits of becoming vocal on socio-political issues. Millennials especially want corporate leaders to address their contributions to society beyond their bottom line.

Before he opened the doors to Airbnbs across the country to refugees, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky publicly denounced President Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on Twitter: “not allowing countries or refugees into America is not right, and we must stand with those who are affected.” Commenting on the same policy, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stated “Frightened children have been detained in airports without their parents. People seeking refuge have been turned away and sent back to the danger they just managed to flee. This is not how it should be in America.” These executives seized an opportunity to become champions and spokespeople for a cause critical to their consumers and employees.

Don’t be afraid of haters

Having the courage to take a stance and publicly uphold a brand’s values opens the door to criticism and the potential to lose customers. The ability to handle that negativity — both in terms of expertise on the issue and tactical know-how — is essential for brands to build credibility and demonstrate commitment. Arguably, the risk of losing sporadic customers by taking a stand is offset by gaining more loyal customers and attracting new customer bases.

When TOMS took a stance against gun violence in 2018 by pledging $5 million in donations to organizations across the U.S. working to curb gun violence, the retail company lost some of its customers (who are approx. 50% Democrat, 50% Republican). However, TOMS has seen a flood of new customers since the announcement, most of them men. CEO Blake Mycoskie believes these new customers are visiting the TOMS site “largely because they’re interested in how they can participate in our initiative, and then they see products they had no idea we did. It’s bringing a ton of attention to the brand.”

This is not to say that every consumer brand will be irrelevant if it doesn’t a take public stance on social, political or environmental issues. Rather, there is an increasing cost to companies of not doing so and falling behind others that build brand loyalty and solidify customer commitment through such initiatives. As the debate about whether and how to take a stand gains more prominence in C-suites, the challenge for brands in 2019 and beyond will be to commit to their values and articulate socio-political messages without sounding disingenuous, inauthentic, or opportunistic.

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