Delivering positive social change alongside financial returns has become the mantra for businesses of all types over the past few years. While taking a particular stand on social or political issues will be rewarded by some consumers, it will inevitably alienate others. Companies have responded to this dilemma in the past by avoiding contentious issues. That is no longer possible and consumers and employees alike expect their companies to take a stand on issues that are important to them, rather than standing behind social causes that are generally anodyne. In other cases, it is impossible to avoid taking a stand, resulting in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem.

In an era of free and open communications, exacerbated by social media, whether truthful or not, people have the ability to rapidly express, coordinate and mobilize around their views. Consumers want to use their purchasing power for positive change, buying or boycotting brands based on their perceived societal impact. 

Cineplex Canada’s decision to screen the controversial anti-abortion film, Unplanned, resulted in some people boycotting the company. A decision not to screen the film would have provoked organized opposition from other people. Although it is too early for Cineplex to evaluate the net impact of its decision, the example highlights the need for brands to take a deliberate stand that is aligned with its core values rather than prevaricate.

Another example may be found in Gillette’s recent provocative ad campaign, which challenged overt masculinity, addressed bullying and sexism, and responded to the #MeToo movement. Our latest Brand Trust study revealed that Gillette saw an increase in its values-based trust score and perception that it cares about the wellbeing of society. Interestingly, however, the positive effect was pronounced among women, while the effect on men was mildly negative

While brands today have the opportunity to build trust in many different ways, there are just as many ways to lose it. Trust can be restored in some cases when there has been an accident or mistake (e.g. Samsung’s recovery from its combustible phone fiasco). Once trust has been compromised through deliberate malfeasance, however, it is very difficult for a brand to fully recover (e.g. Volkswagen’s inability to bounce back from its emissions cheating scandal). A decision that reflects an organization’s values will usually be seen as deliberate.

Even purpose-led campaigns may spark backlash or be seen as an example of “trust-washing” as consumers’ BS detectors are fine-tuned. In the case of Gillette, for instance, if the brand does not keep its promises by taking action that makes a real difference, its provocative ad campaign may be perceived as disingenuous or opportunistic, which would hurt the brand’s reputation in the long run.

Through their purchase decisions, consumers are looking to satisfy both their immediate functional needs and their need to identify with the values and beliefs of a brand. In the polarized world that we live in, consumers empowered by social media are increasingly taking sides and expecting brands and their leaders to do the same. The era of the mass market has come to an end and brands must choose which consumers they want to serve, and then ensure that their positions are aligned with those of their chosen target market, even if this means catering to ever-smaller segments.

Brands have to respond to the divisive political and social climate around us while staying true to their values. As risky as this can be, brand activism is often cheered on by consumers when they believe the brand is authentic and putting action behind its words. A good example is Nike’s controversial ad campaign featuring football player Colin Kaepernick who famously took a knee during the U.S. national anthem to protest against racial injustice. The tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” shows how a brand can harness the energy of controversy and societal divisions to spark and drive consumer engagement.

Starbucks and Airbnb are other cases in point, having taken a stance in the midst of the refugee controversy in the U.S.. Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees in five years. Airbnb offered free housing to refugees, students and green card holders who were stranded in American airports due to President Donald Trump’s executive order.

Gone are the days when brands could get away with taking a neutral stance on contemporary social and political issues. In an untrusting and polarized era, brands that address our anxieties in honest and authentic ways will earn the loyalty of consumers. It is no longer enough for brands to simply link to societal issues that are generally safe. They must weigh in on controversial societal issues before they become flashpoints. Taking a position will alienate some people, but not taking a position could alienate everyone.

Saul Klein, PhD

Dean of the Gustavson School of Business

About the Gustavson Brand Trust Index:

The Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria conducts an annual survey to assess consumer trust across more than 300 different brands and what leads consumers to recommend a brand to their friends and family. Besides the functional performance of a brand (quality, reliability, value for money) and the way it relates to its customers, consumers also pay close attention to a brand’s values and its commitment to social responsibility. For more information on the Gustavson Brand Trust Index, please visit https://www.uvic.ca/gustavson/brandtrust/.

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