Taking a stance – should brands weigh into big issues?

  • Date 6th July 2022
  • Author Luke Brown
Taking a stance – should brands weigh into big issues?

The past few years have seen a big shift in the role brands play in matters at the forefront of the public consciousness. And the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade appears to have galvanised even more brands into action. But what are the implications of taking a public stance on social issues for brands and corporations? AFFINITY’s Chief Brand Officer, Angela Smith was asked for her thoughts on this by CMO Magazine. Read what Angela had to say in the below excerpt, or take a look at the full article here.

What corporate actions supporting reproductive rights tells us about talent and brand management

Swift condemnation and action following the recent Roe versus Wade decision reversing the constitutional right of US women to abortion was absolutely necessary for brands claiming a people-first talent culture or support for people over profit, several industry commentators agree.

The US Supreme Court on 24 June 2022 overturned the landmark 1973 Roe versus Wade ruling that recognised a women’s constitutional right to abortion, triggering a wave of US states to quickly begin clamping down on or outlawing abortions. The decision has been denounced by US President, Joe Biden, as one that would dramatically change life for millions of women across American and only heighten polarisation across the country. It’s also been criticised by a wider spectrum of players, from abortion rights activists and groups to international leaders, organisations and individuals worldwide.

And actions were swift from a number of corporates operating in the US as they signalled support for reproductive rights. On the list of companies offering employees travel and accommodation reimbursement if facing restricted or banned abortions in their own state are Atlassian, Canva, Microsoft, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, The Walt Disney Company, Netflix, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Google, Salesforce, Amazon, Tesla, Patagonia, DoorDash, Airbnb, Starbucks and Conde Nast. CMO’s parent company, Foundry, has also adopted this policy.

What these moves tell us about corporate culture

While the decision to support employees’ reproductive rights in this context has specific merits from a progressive people and culture point of view, it is also further indication of the shift brands are making to reflect the social, environmental and cultural values consumers increasingly expect them to exude.

AFFINITY Chief Brand Officer, Angela Smith, is a big believer in the intrinsic link between employee and brand experience and saw responses supporting reproductive rights as a good example of this in practice.

“Your employees are at the coal face when it comes to interactions with your customers, so there’s no doubt that action – or inaction – has the potential to impact on your brand,” she said. “But as to whether there is an imperative to stand for something; I think this still comes back to the values and purpose already established for the brand. What’s clear to me though, is in light of events like this and issues such as climate change and the Ukraine conflict, we’re only going to see more of it.”

“[However] the employees of blue-chip companies are less likely to be in need of support than those holding down two or three part-time roles in hospitality or retail, without college degrees and medical insurance. Some commentary and posturing rings hollow when you consider who the Court’s decision will really impact,” Smith added. “The real litmus test is what influence can they exert beyond their own corporate walls: What philanthropy or real support can they or will they offer the broader society that really needs it?

“That said, this is such a complex and important issue, merely having corporate voices on the record against this decision may be seen as a win.”

Overt displays of affection

CMO also asked industry leaders if they believed such overt displays of corporate and brand support on a sensitive ethical and moral subject, not to mention the criticism it signals of legislated laws, would have occurred prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For Smith, the biggest repercussion of the pandemic was giving us time and space to reconsider work/life priorities.

“The practice of embedding more sustainable and socially responsible business practices has been around since the mid-2000s, when the UN suggested capital markets would benefit from playing a more active role in improving societal outcomes,” she pointed out. “But despite the thinking being around for a while, and increasing expectations from consumers and shareholders alike, take up still feels in its infancy.”

The trickier question Smith raises is if brands should take a stance on sensitive issues like abortion, and how public it needs to be.

“In any organisation, the challenge getting consensus on these issues is sometimes insurmountable thanks to being highly subjective and open to a variety of sources of the ‘truth’, whether it be abortion, the environment or equal rights. However, when an organisation’s brand purpose is consistently practised and clear to all, it should make sense when to act on extrinsic societal matters,” she said.

“Take Qantas’ strong advocacy for marriage equality in 2017, Apple going 100 per cent carbon neutral in 2020, Starbucks commitment to hiring 25,000 veterans by 2025, even JB Hi-Fi’s support for The Song Room.”

Action or inaction, there is going to be brand risk to weigh up. “Weighing up whether to do anything – and what that action might be – boils down to their ‘right to play’, lest they be accused of virtue signalling or worse,” Smith said.

“If a company has an established track record in actively supporting issues of public interest, then their actions should continue to reflect those same values and beliefs. But given the sensitivity and complexity of this issue, it would be a courageous, if not foolish, CEO wading into this particular issue as a first outing.

“Essentially, businesses need to be clear on ‘who’ they are, what they believe in, what matters to their people and what values they aspire to embody.”

But even the strongest brand values and playbook can’t completely guide the decision that still needs to be made around what to do and what to say in instances such as abortion rights.  

“A brand or corporation needs to quickly assess if they will actually make a difference to the situation, or if they’re just jumping on the bandwagon to be seen as ‘doing the right thing’. Critics will be quick to call out virtue signalling,” Smith said. “But if the organisation has an existing record for supporting the given issue or responding in a similar vein, then they have a right to play. And indeed, perhaps there’s even an expectation within the minds of customers that they will get involved.”

You can read the full article here. Taking a stance on matters of public interest is not a decision to be taken lightly for any brand. If you need a sounding board, or just have some questions around finding the right balance for your brand, feel free to reach out to Angela on angela@affinity.ad

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