It used to be the exception to see brands taking a stand on social and political issues.

In fact, it was considered taboo for companies to come out in favor of causes for fear of alienating part of their audience.

Take a look around today, and it’s not difficult to see that times have changed. Brands from Sprite to Heineken are now coming out in support of a variety of issues by running CSR campaigns.

Is it a good idea for your brand? And if so, what do you need to know to get it right?

What Audiences Think About Brands That Speak Out on Social and Political Issues

While traditional CSR campaigns focused on a brand’s philanthropic activities, today’s efforts take on issues including climate change, immigration, race, health, and more.

But not everyone appreciates the idea of brands taking a stand.

“Knee-jerk decisions to engage in an activism campaign can spell disaster if prompted primarily by a CEO’s or marketing department’s political itch, an in-the-moment media spotlight grab, or as precedent-setting relief from a protestor boycott,” said public relations consultant Mary Beth West.

Research conducted by PR firm Sword and the Script says that most consumers think brands should stay silent on political issues.

“Nearly half (49%) of overall respondents said brands should not weigh in on political issues,” says Frank Strong, founder, Sword and the Script. “However, it’s not a majority because about one-third said they believe brands should get involved, while another 22% were unsure. Sentiment analysis around this question suggests context matters.”

PR firm Clutch found that while businesses that speak up on social issues and those that choose to stay silent both risk losing customers, staying silent may have less severe consequences. Their study found that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (63%) say they’re likely to continue shopping at businesses that stay silent on issues they care about. 

Aligning a Brand with the Right Cause Matters

Alignment comes into play when companies build a campaign around a social or political issue. Some brands are clearly aligned with their causes. Take, for example, Patagonia supporting environmental issues.

But when Gillette came out with its controversial “The Best Men Can Be” campaign earlier this year, there was significant blowback, primarily because some thought the brand was trying to appear “woke”—without it taking any action to back it up.

“We should all be asking Gillette: Where can we find your authentic commitment and action to changing this problem?” says Phillip Haid, co-founder and CEO of Public, in Fast Company. “If brands are going to lean into social purpose to sell product, we have to expect them to do so with substance. Raising awareness is not enough. There needs to be a genuine, informed, long-term commitment to the issue with a clear plan to achieve the change the company is seeking to create.”

What Do CEOs Think About Social Activism?

Further, some data shows that CEO views on taking a stand on social issues differ from the company’s communications team. In the USC Annenberg study released in April 2019, just 40% of CEOs said they’re “likely” to communicate about social issues, compared to 69% of in-house communicators.  

Brands Must Walk Their Talk to Be Believed

If brands do decide to launch such an effort, they must be mindful. If acampaign is just words—and isn’t backed up by the way the brand does business—a company can find itself in hot water.

“Surely no company is going to launch an advertising campaign if it thinks it will lose money; therefore, by definition, any social justice-orientated marketing is driven primarily by money, not advancing the cause of human progress,” says this piece in The Guardian.

If a brand’s commitment extends just to communicating, rather than considering how it conducts its own business, it’s liable to be called out, says Sophie Lewis, chief strategy officer at VMLY&R London.

“The lack of a real plan of action seems to follow a worrying trend of brands appropriating social purpose for compelling advertising creative and quickly moving on next quarter to another ‘cool’ trend to sell their product. Sprite’s ‘I Love You, Hater,’ Audi’s wage gap ad ‘Daughter,’ Heineken’s ‘World’s Apart’ experiment, and State Street’s ‘Fearless Girl’ all speak to this worrying trend of inauthentic activity that does little to walk the walk on the issues they are addressing,” Haid says.

To Support or Not to Support—Which Is Better?

So, at the end of the day, how should brands proceed down the slippery slope of supporting social issues?

“CEOs’ advocacy rationales of ‘standing up for our company’s values, no matter what’ certainly can have an appropriate and advantageous time and place, but applied to the wrong scenario, they can present a come-back-to-bite-you outcome, aimed directly at their own bottom lines,” says West.

The prevailing advice seems to be that if a brand chooses to go down this path, it should proceed with caution. It should select an issue that’s a fit and be prepared to back up its promotional efforts with REAL actions to support the message it puts forward.

Next Steps: Be Prepared

There are many examples of brands who have successfully taken outspoken stances on environmental issues, health, and more, but as we’ve seen here, there are plenty of cautionary tales as well. To prepare yourself, be sure to read our essential guides to working with influencers to expand your reach, prepping CEOs for social media, and taking proactive steps to avoid brand crisis.