Small businesses that take a stand for their brand roam the high-risk, high-reward world of advocacy. Do brands that advocate for causes risk driving away customers, or are they on to something that contradicts conventional marketing wisdom?
She believes brands should stand for something, as she boldly explained to Ivana Taylor and Iva Ignjatovic. Taylor owns DIYMarketers, a company “committed to helping overwhelmed small business owners on a budget.” Ignjatovic is a marketing, strategy, leadership, and business consultant.
“Stacey is so inspiring and full of great advice for small and medium-size businesses ready to take a stand for their brand,” Taylor said.
DePolo takes a firm stand about what advocacy entails.
“Brand activism includes actions and reactions brands or their employees take to demonstrate support for — or opposition to — issues and causes,” she said.
“Brands taking a public stand on controversial issues, building entire businesses to address social causes, or responding to consumer activism directed at them are all engaged in types of brand activism,” DePolo said.
This applies to all types of workers.
“Employees, freelancers, consultants and solopreneurs can engage in brand activism,” DePolo said. “They can select issues, partners, employers, clients, suppliers, organizations and political entities to support, engage or oppose.”
Briefly put, Taylor said brand activism is the “extension of a purpose-driven business.”
That means, as Ignjatovic explained, “a brand embraces a cause it feels strongly about and links that to its branding message.
“It’s important for brands to take a stand on social issues because businesses should not be profit only,” she said. “It’s about making a difference where it matters — part of a ‘humanizing approach.’”
Brands shine a light on themselves when they take a stand.
“In this era where prospects believe nearly every business is interchangeable, what you stand for and how you demonstrate it can be a powerful differentiator,” DePolo said. “That attracts a tribe of loyal brand advocates.”
Taking a stand should come after forethought. DePolo noted when to act:
- There’s a connection to your core mission.
- A significant percentage of customers resonate strongly with the position.
- You’ve weighed the risk and are prepared to stand by it.
“Don’t take a stand on every issue, on issues you don’t understand fully or your brand mission has no logical connection to,” DePolo said.
Be sure not to act on a whim.
“Brand activism is not to be taken lightly,” Taylor said. “A brand that isn’t naturally passionate about a cause shouldn’t try activism.
Several social or global issues are ripe for brands to get behind.
“Issues not being addressed effectively by governments, and trending issues where your brand can make a unique or significant contribution are the best ones to consider,” DePolo said. “In today’s world, we earn more respect by being transparent about what we really stand for. No one wants to find out they’ve been supporting something they disagree with after the fact.
“This includes issues with broad impact that require massive public support to give politicians or corporations the leverage needed to move into action,” she said. “Issues such as climate change, net neutrality, gun control, and equal pay are good candidates for brand activism.”
DePolo gave an example that businesses found tough to swallow.
“During the ‘90’s, organic foods were some of the only U.S. growth markets,” she said. “These pioneering companies all got bought by the giants they disrupted once the big businesses saw the premium we’d willingly pay for those products.”
Comparing social responsibility and brand advocacy, Taylor did not see much difference while DePolo was more discerning.
“They are related but often different,” DePolo said. “Nike’s embrace of Colin Kaepernick is brand activism, but its response to consumer activists’ concerns about sweatshop labor and subsequent leadership on supply-chain integrity is social responsibility.”
On that topic she found support from executive branding coach, marketing strategist and author Mark Schaefer. He believes the Nike stand for Kaepernick is a sly move that will pay dividends.
“Consumers want brands to take a stand, they need them to take a stand,” Schaefer said. “It is the only thing that results in brand loyalty.
“It’s important that if a brand decides to take a stand like this, it has got to be really, truly deeply aligned with the values, the mission and the purpose of the company and its consumers,” he said.”
Ignjatovic sees social responsibility and brand advocacy in stages.
“Social responsibility is just a first step,” she said. “Brand advocacy takes courage — and real action — and resolve to accept risks by supporting a cause.”
Ways for a small business to take a stand and support a cause can be as simple as putting a charity jar on the counter, encouraging its team to volunteer and offer expertise — and time — for free.
“Small businesses can donate products or services; visibly offer or withdraw support from suppliers; lobby elected officials; write op-eds; engage in social media, and organize customers to participate in campaigns,” DePolo said.
Taylor suggested that the best way a small business can take a stand for a cause is to “be visible in their community: Volunteer, get on boards, host fundraisers.” At the same time, she said brands should stay away from politics.
“Brands should avoid issues where their actions will be seen as purely for marketing gain without making meaningful contributions or worse, tone-deaf,” DePolo said. “Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ campaign and Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now’ TV spot were notable brand blunders.
“Avoid taking a stand where you lack the resources, will or understanding of the issue to stay the course,” she said. “Land’s End’s feminist flip-flop and Keurig’s hasty response to Hannity and Fox News are such examples.”
DePolo added this advice:
- Disrupt the bandwagon effect.
- Avoid taking a stand on an issue just because it is popular.
- Don’t position your brand on an extreme when reconciliation is more strategic.
As Schaefer suggested, more brands will likely take a stand on social issues. Traditional customer loyalty is a myth.
“Technology has advanced transparency,” DePolo said. “It is harder for brands to hide their actions and true values. Educated consumers follow the money and flow where brands support our values.
“The Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates of unlimited dark corporate money into U.S. politics,” she said. “Activists such as Shannon Coulter responded by organizing consumers to grab your wallet as one way to fight back, forcing brands to own up to values.”
Other businesses might soon join the fray.
“Taking a stand on a social issue is the new way to differentiate yourself while communicating your values,” Taylor said.
For Ignjatovic, advocacy is one way to “humanize a brand, stand out and sell more. Leave a lasting legacy. Make real change.”
DePolo recalled her awakening.
“I was inspired to become a consumer activist by the book ‘Cluetrain Manifesto’ that predicted this future of ‘markets as conversations’ nearly two decades ago,” she said. “I go out of my way to support brands that take a stand for causes I care about.”
Taylor is more reticent, preferring brands because of their utility and function. Ignjatovic makes a point to use cosmetics not tested in any way on animals.
“Choose when and how to stand for something wisely,” DePolo said. “Be strategic. Listen before jumping in. Always rely on the direct advice of people from the race, class, gender and so on that you seek to support. Check grassroots organizations rather than just agencies when deciding.”
A brand should select its cause based on core values, according to Taylor.
“Brands could choose any issue, as long as they are not hypocritical about it,” Ignjatovicsaid. “They don’t have to go for something in their industry, but that might be easier.”
Whether or not brand activism will replace traditional marketing and messaging soon, Taylor sees the movement as “a trend and something we are evolving to.”
“Brand activism is becoming an essential part of marketing and messaging, especially in the awareness phase,” DePolo said. “It won’t replace traditional and other new forms of marketing. It will always be just a part of the mix.
“One great resource to start a movement around your brand is Jennifer Dulski’s new book, ‘Purposeful,’ and her associated Facebook group,” DePolo said. “She shares stories and strategies from years of experience at Change.org and now Facebook.”