When marketers dare to take a stand: Dangerous waters or courageous branding?

by | Jul 9, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

From Airbnb’s “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 our 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 now even appear to 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 take a stand. REI, for example, was pressured by its customers to stop selling hiking products made by gun manufacturer Savage Arms/Vista Outdoor. And, 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.

In fact, a 2018 Sprout Social study, “Championing Change in the Age of Social Media,” concluded that two-thirds of U.S. consumers surveyed don’t want companies to stay silent on social and political issues. And yet, marketing pundits are taking their own stand on whether or not businesses should take a stand on hot button issues that could cheer some customers but alienate others.

On one hand, many marketing gurus point to the colossal buying power of Millennial and Gen Z consumers (estimated at $244 billion), two generations that base their purchasing decisions on a business’ declared values. If you want to attract that younger audience, it’s imperative that your company advocate for a cause they care about – and do so authentically with words and actions.

Carol-Roth2On the other hand, your brand could end up appearing two-faced, warns author, TV host and small business expert Carol Roth (pictured left), writing in Entrepreneur about the 2015 religious freedom act in the state of Indiana. “On CNBC, I mentioned that several business owners looked hypocritical for threatening to stop doing business with Indiana because they felt the proposed law discriminated against the LGBT community, when these same companies freely did business with countries abroad where they routinely killed people who were LGBT … the boycott seemed blatantly hypocritical.” If you’re a marketer who’s trying to find a way through the taking-a-stand conundrum, consider our PR agency’s five recommendations:

  1. Give your brand a reality check: The axiom that when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one holds true when it comes to marketing activism by brands. Put more poignantly by one of the world’s leading thinkers on strategy and marketing, Nirmalya Kumar, “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.” Christian 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.
  1. Patagonia-TwitterKnow 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 delves deeply into activism, such as taking the government to court to protect wilderness areas (see Patagonia’s ad, at right), where its customers go to reclaim their souls. As a result, the company doesn’t just have a loyal fan base, it has brand evangelists.
  1. Be intentional about your brand activism. Strategic, well-executed advocacy campaigns can endear brands to their customer base. Look at Patagonia. 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 can attest to that, given what happened when its CEO casually commented during a CNBC-TV interview (see below) that a business-minded president like Donald Trump “was an asset to the country.” The resulting call to boycott Under Armour products spread on Twitter like butter in 100-degree heat. 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.Screen Shot 2018-06-01 at 1.05.20 PM-1
  1. Prepare for fallout against your brand. 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 is not inherently a reason to drop a political stand or desist from doing what your brand feels is the right thing to do. Take our hometown retailer 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.


  1. It’s okay to be non-partisan; but do something to make the world a better place. Despite what Point #1 alludes to, there is room for middle ground for brands. 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. And it seems to be working, as Whirlpool reports on its carecounts.com website that attendance rates for high-risk students increased from 82% to 91% 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. But, in this day and age, 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, after all, 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.”

This article originally appeared on the Maccabee blog; reprinted with permission.

Gwen Chynoweth
Gwen Chynoweth is an Executive Vice President at Maccabee Public Relations in Minneapolis.


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