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When Should a Brand Get Involved in Social Issues?

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Guest Bloggers, Marketing

– Jason Sprenger – President, Game Changer Communications

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that 2016 will go down as a year that a lot of social issues in America boiled over.  Transgender people and the bathrooms they use.  The role of law enforcement in society, and how they relate to the people they serve – especially those in ethnic minorities.  The lingering issues of prejudice and hate as they pertain to civil and LGBTQ rights.  How our elected leaders, and candidates for high office, represent us.  It’s a heavy time to be an American, there’s no doubt about it.

From a professional standpoint, I think it’s fascinating and instructive to take a look at how brands have reacted and participated in the debates and discussions around these issues.  Consider this:

  • A lot of brands had something to say about the issue of bathrooms for transgender people. Target’s stand for inclusivity may have been the most publicized – and most controversial – of all.  Despite boycotts and other blowback from some groups, Target remains committed to its stance and it says that it hasn’t negatively affected business.
  • Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single brand that has taken on the topic of race, the police, LGBTQ rights and prejudice, etc.
  • Individuals have said and done certain things regarding the upcoming 2016 elections, but I can’t think of a brand that has taken a stand on Clinton, Trump or anything relating to the election.

These reactions, or lack thereof, again beg the question: what’s the right thing for a brand to do in engaging in social issues?  Should a brand engage, or should it sit out on the sidelines?  I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules that govern this; I think it depends on the brand, the situation and potentially several other factors.  But I think there are a few guidelines that are essential to keep in mind:

  • Brands should act and communicate with humanity, in the context of what’s going on in the world. It doesn’t matter if they take a stand or not – they shouldn’t be pushing an agenda of theirs that’s out of step with community or world events.  Understand what’s happening, and act with common sense.
  • Brands should be a part of the community they do business with. This can refer to geography, or to stakeholder groups and others with shared interests and experiences.  If a brand’s stakeholders are engaged in a social issue, or if they need to be defended or advocated for, I think it may make sense for that brand to take some action. This is where Target’s actions on transgender rights are understandable – and I think appropriate.
  • Brands should not do something just for the sake of doing something. Quite often, the best thing to do is nothing at all.  If it feels like you’re being opportunistic, or reacting just for the sake of reacting, then the best decision is probably to leave it alone.  Reacting too strongly, or in a way that would be seen as inauthentic or inappropriate, has a tendency to create a backlash.

As I’ve written in other blogs in this space, it’s really pretty simple.  If it feels right, go for it.  If it doesn’t, then abstain.  In the meantime, buckle up – the road ahead might be a rocky one.