In today’s political climate, brands are often forced to decide whether they should take a public stance on controversial issues or remain silent. By taking a stance, brands can win over customers who share their values, but they also risk alienating customers who have differing views. But unfortunately, when brands stay silent, they also risk losing customers who expect them to address the issue. So, what should brands do when they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place?
The relationship between a consumer and a brand is much deeper than it has ever been before. A study conducted by the Global Strategy Group found that 81% of U.S. consumers believe corporations should take a stance on important societal issues. When the Global Strategy Group first conducted this study just four years ago, only 9% of consumers agreed with this statement, which shows how consumers’ expectations have changed.
Consumers are not only interested in learning about a brand’s products or services, but also about the brand’s values. After researching the brand, they develop a set of expectations. For example, a consumer expects Apple to produce high quality, cutting edge products since they are known as a high-end, innovative technology company. Consumers also expect Toms to be a charitable, socially responsible brand since they are known for donating a pair of shoes for every pair that they sell.
Consumers demand that brands live up to their expectations. When a brand fails to meet a consumer’s expectation, the consumer may start to reevaluate his or her relationship with the brand, which is how brands lose customers.
Therefore, in order to determine if you should take a political or social stance, think about what your consumers expect of you. If you are known as a values-oriented company, then you will disappoint your customers by staying silent on controversial issues. If you choose not to speak out, customers may no longer see you as a brand with values. Your brand’s attempt to establish itself as value-oriented may even come off as inauthentic.
After President Trump issued the controversial immigration ban earlier this year, Starbucks was one of many companies that took a stance against the executive order. Starbucks didn’t just speak up against the travel ban, the company took action by pledging to employ 10,000 refugees. This was certainly not the first issue that Starbucks has spoken out about—the company regularly addresses other issues including climate change, diversity in the workplace, positive supplier relationships, and hiring veterans. Due to their stance on these issues, Starbucks is known as a progressive company with a social conscience.
After announcing their plans to hire 10,000 refugees, a study found that Starbucks ranked #18 out of 150 brands among Democrats, but #103 among Republicans. Clearly, their decision to speak out against President Trump’s immigration ban cost them customers. But, was it worth the loss?
This study also found that Starbucks ranked high on the list of 150 brands among mothers, people who act upon their values, Millennials, and people with higher income levels. Even though Starbucks likely lost customers who didn’t agree with their stance on the immigration issue, they built a stronger relationship with these powerful consumers by reinforcing expectations.
On the other hand, Uber was one company that failed to speak out against the executive order that banned travelers from certain countries. Then-CEO Travis Kalanick issued a statement on the executive order promising to bring up his concerns in person with President Trump, but he did not take a stance one way or the other. Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, went in the opposite direction by publicly opposing the executive order and donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Both Lyft and Uber are seen as innovative and progressive companies, so consumers expected both of them to take strong stances against the travel ban. Lyft exceeded consumers’ expectations, while Uber failed to meet them. As a result, many consumers deleted the Uber app from their smartphones and vowed to only use Lyft’s ride-sharing services. Uber eventually ended up addressing the executive order in an email to customers, but this was only sent after the boycott had begun. In the eyes of consumers, Uber waited far too long to pick a side, and their silence cost them dearly.
A Final Note
Companies shouldn’t be afraid to take a stance when it is in line with the values they have always stood for in the eyes of the public. In fact, not taking a stance in this situation or waiting too long to speak out may be detrimental to the business. But if you do take a stance, it’s important to understand that your actions speak louder than your words. Consumers will be closely watching you to make sure that your brand isn’t all talk. For instance, if your brand actively supports the fight against climate change, you must be able to show what your company is doing to reduce its carbon footprint. If you support LGBT rights, then swiftly take action when one of your managers discriminates against an employee due to his sexual orientation. If you don’t, then it may seem as if you are simply taking a stance in order to win over customers who are passionate about the issue.
Even though businesses that speak out do face backlash, they are also able to build stronger relationships with their most loyal and profitable customers by staying true to who they are and who these customers expect them to be.
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