It used to be that the vast majority of corporations did everything they could to avoid offending a possible customer by choosing sides. Most major brands played it safe, and if they did publicly support a cause, it was almost always something broadly supported and impossible to be against.
Today, through the explosion of communication, the impossibility of keeping things quiet, and the focused efforts of activists of all stripes, it's nearly impossible for a company to not be forced to take a stand on any number of controversial issues.
A recent example relevant to Mythology's home base state of West Virginia: Recently Bank of America announced that they will no longer lend to companies that practice "mountain top removal", a form of mining that literally lops the tops off of mountains to get to the coal. Environmentalists have been very savvy in targeting the source of funds for this practice, and in the case of B of A, were successful in forcing the country's largest bank to turn off the money spicket.
In doing so, B of A had to make a choice: offend the coal mining companies and the workers who may get laid off, or the growing ranks of environmentalists and average citizens who are becoming more "green" aware? You would like to think these decisions are made based on principle, but it doesn't take much deliberation to determine that B of A probably gained more green-minded fans than lost coal miner business.
The list of issues and causes is endless, and even smaller companies are having to "choose who you lose" in order to position their brand effectively and profitably with the right customer segments. Many of the early adopters of more liberal "domestic partner" benefit policies were companies that made the decision practically in order to retain what they considered talented employees.
The understanding of brands as personal identity markers has fed into this dilemma. The best brands have powerful emotional connections, and the more emotionally connected a consumer is, they more meaning they want to build in the relationship. Brands that are seen as Americana and traditional (e.g., Disney) may have a lot of conservative customers who get deeply hurt when a company policy seems to support a more liberal agenda. Likewise, if a hip, edgy company (e.g., Nike, The Gap) makes a business decision that doesn't seem to support liberal or social justice policies, it can come under attack.
Even the social media activities of your employees can influence how your brand is perceived as more people speak their mind on blogs and sites such as Facebook.
CEO's and senior marketers may not have planned to get their brand directions enmeshed in politics, but increasingly they may not have a choice. Some soul (and brand) searching questions you may want to ask about your company:
- What does our company culture and mission give us as guidance on how to make tough decisions?
- What categories of decisions should be based on the moral and ethical merits, and which ones based on practical business?
- How will executives and employees collaborate on these decisions?
- What are the implications of NOT taking a stand on something vs. taking a stand, not just in terms of short-term revenue and good/bad PR, but on attracting the employees/partners that we need?
Has your company had to make a tough public choice on a moral or political issue that affected your business? We'd love to hear how you handled it and what the outcome was.