Should retailers take a public stance on social issues?

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Source: Whole Planet Foundation
Apr 03, 2017
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MarketingCharts staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from MarketingCharts, a Watershed Publishing publication providing up-to-the-minute data and research to marketers.

Brands are in the political and societal spotlight more often these days — sometimes of their own accord and sometimes not. But to what extent should brands have a voice in societal matters?

Youth appear to feel more strongly about this than their older counterparts, according to a recent YouGov survey, which found half of Millennials (18-34) approving of brands taking a public stance on social issues, as opposed to only about one-quarter of Baby Boomers (55+).

Gen Xers (35-54) fall somewhere in between, with 41 percent believing that it’s fine for brands to take a stand.

Asked what causes in particular have gained more of their support over the past three months, the top answer across respondents was immigration, agreed to by 51 percent. That was followed by women’s rights, 43 percent; diversity and inclusion, 41 percent; education, 40 percent; environment, 38 percent; health, 36 percent; animals, 33 percent, and children, 27 percent.

Of course, making views public can cost brands customers: most of the respondents (59 percent) reported being very or somewhat likely to boycott a brand if they disagreed with the company’s stance, and two-thirds support boycotts based on political views. Six in 10 claimed to have not made a purchase at some point in the past because they didn’t believe in what the company stood for.

Brands that simply endorse the latest movement may not be doing enough. In fact, the majority of respondents agreed with the statement that brands tend to support causes that are popular, regardless of whether they are making an authentic commitment to that cause.

There seems to be a desire for such a commitment: prior research has found that youth prize brands that work for positive social change, with a majority believing that brands should actively participate to improve causes and that they have the potential to be a force for good.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see a split between younger and older generations in their reaction to what brands should stand for? Has it become less controversial and more beneficial to publicly embrace causes?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"If people discover you're posturing a position on social issues only to secure a commercial advantage, the backlash will be swift and devastating."
"Companies can be charitable without being stupid. First, a company’s objective should be to be profitable and be in business tomorrow."
"...let me suggest this is a pretty typical attitude for 20-30 year olds."

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20 Comments on "Should retailers take a public stance on social issues?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Yes, I do believe that there is a difference in attitude between younger and older generations regarding promoting social causes. While every brand has the right to publicly embrace causes, and many do, I feel like it has become more controversial to do so as a result of social media and the general willingness/opportunity for people to express their views. It’s a slippery slope for brands. My advice to retailers: think carefully about which causes you chose to promote and how you promote them, and know that your position will likely alienate someone.

Max Goldberg
Guest

Brands weigh-in on hot-button social issues at their own peril. In today’s polarized world, every position seems to have an equal number of supporters and detractors. Why alienate current and potential customers? Brands can get involved and do good without encouraging controversy.

Kim Garretson
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

Yes, retailers should take a stand. Witness this headline and story from last week: Apple, Wal-Mart stay with climate pledge, despite Trump.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
3 years 9 months ago

This is a good example to illustrate the pros and cons. There will always be a group of people alienated by any position a brand takes on an issue. Even one as popular as climate change. However, on issue that swing so strongly in one direction or the other, it’s an easier decision for brand to make. Especially ones that are known to have a corporate culture that fosters social activism.

W. Frank Dell II
BrainTrust

Companies can be charitable without being stupid. First, a company’s objective should be to be profitable and be in business tomorrow. Giving money to a charity is being a good citizen, but who needs to know? Every time a company gets outside their business world there is backlash from some customers, people, organizations and/or employees. Rarely does every employee agree with every other employee. Some employee will think, if they did not give that money away I could get a raise or bonus.

No matter what side a company takes on any social issue or with any organization there are others who disagree. Just think of the number of veterans’ organization, giving to one makes the other upset. Why go into battle when you know you will lose?

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

If, and when, brands do take a stand on social issues they need to be honest and committed to their position. As we’ve seen in the past this sword will cut both ways and the brand needs to be prepared for the cut from one side or the other — but be assured that the cut will come. It is imperative that the issue is real and the stance is real. If people discover you’re posturing a position on social issues only to secure a commercial advantage, the backlash will be swift and devastating.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Consumers realize how small and interwoven our small planet is and with this ever-increasing awareness, consumers in first-world countries want to exercise their buying power as a force for good. From the impact of packaging on marine life to employment practices on distant shores, consumers see more into their purchases than the products they purchase and the brands they align with. When my generalizing does the subject a dis-service, I do not see large gaps among consumer demographics in their appreciation of social issues, which suggests that brand messaging on issues of social responsibility resonate with all who hear such declarations.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Definitely they should take a stand. Trade association positions are fairly predictable. Apple, Walmart and GE stances against some of the President’s policies are really important to know and not nearly as predictable.

So I guess I’m in the Boomer 25 percent — but it does help us decide who we are happier to give our money to.

It cuts both ways but I’m very, very good with it.

David Livingston
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

Social issues are fads that come and go. Most are overblown and just psychological rather than real. There has always been a difference between younger and older generations. Businesses would be wise to run focus group research before backing any social issue so as to weigh the benefits. In the past we have seen some unintended consequences no one saw coming. Target got burned at the stake while Chik-fil-A was launched into another level. It’s always a gamble, and anyone knows when you do gamble you need both knowledge and luck.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Brands taking a stand on social issues is a slippery slope that can have significant consequences, especially on polarizing issues. While, the Millennial generation seeks and desires brands to have more of a social conscience and a perspective on controversial issues, it’s best for companies to keep their profitability and commercial objectives separate from their social stances.

The goal is to seek opportunities to assist the local communities, charities and greater social causes. Retailers dipping their toes into the political arena could have a longstanding negative impact for their business.

Kate Munro
Guest

Several analysts asked us about what our customers were doing after the U.S. election and the new presidential administration — how they were handling the threat of new tariffs, environmental factors, etc. We are seeing a number of large retailers work diligently to figure out what will happen if tariffs increase or change across borders — what we call “what-if costing.” This has been more in response to economic changes. On the social issues side, we have seen retailers taking a stand one way or another on social issues in the media — in keeping with their brand promise. There are many recent studies that show that Millennials are more likely to buy from companies that have similar social-political views. While “should” can be a loaded term, I believe it makes sense for most retailers to take a stand on issues nowadays — to make it clear what their brand stands for. Today’s buyers expect it.

HY Louis
Guest
3 years 9 months ago

I’m not so sure there is a difference between younger and older generations. Young and old liberals seem to post the same shares on Facebook as do the young and old conservatives. I see two types of social issues. First is the type that mostly deal in people’s feelings and well-being such as bathrooms and health care. The other type is where people lose their lives such as war and civil disobedience. It’s probably OK for businesses to dabble in the current events issues so long as it fits in well with their customer base. As for the big issues like unpopular wars and national security, it’s best to leave that to politicians and celebrities.

Karen McNeely
Guest

In general, retailers should remain neutral, but as with any rule there are exceptions. It makes sense to take a public stance when the issue closely aligns with the company’s mission and the values of its core customers (e.g. a company like Whole Foods would take a stance against GMOs) or when it’s regarding human rights closely related to their business (e.g. a retailer taking extra steps to make sure their products are not produced in sweatshops).

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I think most people would say “yes” to both questions, but is that really true? Social activism is likely seen as very contemporary, but it really comes in waves: Liberalism in the 1960s and 30s, conservatism in the decades before that (currently we seem to have both).
But one constant has remained, then and now: activism on the part of a business is usually driven by an ideologue in the exec suite.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

These days, this is a more sticky situation than ever for brands to engage. At this point, I truly don’t believe retailers nor CPG brands need to make public statements on their positions, unless they are directly linked to a hot topic of the day. People will see through more examples of pandering, so if you do make a statement, be genuine. I would generally stay away from this because of opposing views both inside and outside the company.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
3 years 9 months ago
As we read this, we must expect that any generational set of attitudes remain that way over time. In fact, rather than consider this as something “new” among Millennials (for example, the young asked corporations to care in the 1960s), let me suggest this is a pretty typical attitude for 20-30 year olds. But here’s the big question for a company: Should your policies be influenced because of a survey suggesting that somewhere amid their consideration set, young consumers say they’ll offer a slight advantage to companies who “do good”? There are huge assumptions built all the way through. My advice to companies, generally, is simply to be true to yourself and your values. And that includes doing good in any ways that are tangential to your business. Go ahead and do them — but don’t ever do them with the grand idea they build your business. Take action because is it part of being a responsible company. And with that in mind, Mark Ritson out of Australia has pointed out that, perhaps, we need… Read more »
Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
3 years 9 months ago

Yes, there is definitely a split from generation to generation. Each younger generation is becoming more and more tolerant and expectant of social activism from people as well as brands. The importance for brands is authenticity more than simply taking a side on an issue. Younger generations have no tolerance for brands that appear to be disingenuous about their support for social causes.

There is a lesson in fostering loyalty for brands to consider. When brands take a position on an issue that has a clear swing in one direction or another they will create additional loyalty from their customers who agree with the stated position. Take Kim Garretson’s example with Apple and climate change. In this case, we have a brand, known for a corporate culture that not only encourages people to make a difference, but that has presented itself as a business that intends to influence the world to make it better. This continually adds to the loyalty strength of their customers. Especially when it is presented as going against a government authority.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

Brands should have a position on social issues, but not in politics. I don’t believe support for the environment, for children’s well-being, or senior care will create legitimate controversy.

The social issue has to be organic to the brand and it can’t be lip service. Millennials and Zillennials do pay attention to a company’s social conscience and will reward it for it.

gordon arnold
Guest
There has been, is and will be a distinctive and somewhat predictable difference as to how and when businesses and the people in charge of them should take a position in favor of or against trending social issues of significance. Youth is much more inclined to support an issue that is presented as necessary and become willing to campaign to many levels of support. This is why it is mostly the young that fight and die or permanently damaged in wars. Not just the shooting wars but class wars, race wars, religious wars and freedom wars. Just like shooting wars, there are serious life changing causalities for those caught up in wars of opinions and words. Companies and/or people that choose to join in the “movement of the day” aren’t just betting on whether they sell more coffee or movie tickets, they are betting on somebody’s job and income. This is not higher intellect leadership it is unbridled insanity. In the real world nobody has ever won a conflict or argument. Our economy is still… Read more »
david salisbury
Guest
Brands and retailers are increasingly taking a public stand that syncs with the values and views of their customers. This actually creates added loyalty in an age where brand-loyalty may not be what it once was. Millennials can be fiercely loyalty since their values are highly defined with regards to a wide range of public issues as was demonstrated by the social media outcry of the recently pulled Pepsi ad. However, taking a stance on corporate social responsibility and airing political views are two extremes, and the stance of “doing good” is far safer than taking more controversial stances. If a brand knows the values of its customers, then the cost-benefit analysis of taking a stand is much more clear. With analytics today, this should not be a problem. So it’s not as “risky” as some analysts say, since a brand can leverage trending issues to their advantage by siding with their customer to improve their customer-centricity in brand voice and experiences, and no longer be just about products and price. With data at their… Read more »
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Braintrust
"If people discover you're posturing a position on social issues only to secure a commercial advantage, the backlash will be swift and devastating."
"Companies can be charitable without being stupid. First, a company’s objective should be to be profitable and be in business tomorrow."
"...let me suggest this is a pretty typical attitude for 20-30 year olds."

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