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Should Brands Take a Stance on Polarizing Issues?

Chris Wilks, Bo Bothe, Tia Johnson, Cynthia Stipeche


Solving for B°
Should Brands Take a Stance on Polarizing Issues?

graphic about navigating polarization

In 2020, the United States and the world feel more divided than in any time in recent history. That division extends from the political arena to popular culture to sports and everything in between. Some topics are fun to debate but others are soberingly serious.

Where do brands fit into this division? Is it best for them to be vocal and take a position on issues regarding race, politics, the environment, or public health? Or is it best if they stay out of the discussion? We discuss that very issue and more in this podcast episode. Here's what we cover:

Episode Transcript

*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.

Does Neutrality Exist for Brands?

Chris Wilks: So the inspiration for today's episode actually spawned from conversations we were having amongst the team in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. That paired with the state of where we are right now as a society – protests against racial injustice, debates about wearing masks, and even the looming 2020 Presidential Election.

With all of that taken into account, it's safe to say that we're in one of the most divided times in our nation's history. So I want to start with a simple question. For brands, is there room to be neutral anymore?

Cynthia Stipeche: I would say that being neutral is probably a thing of the past. Brands are living, breathing, active participants in society now and you can't hide. If you do and remain neutral, somebody else is going to make your position up for you.

Tia Johnson: I would say that nowadays neutrality is a stance within itself. So although you may take the stance of remaining neutral or you may be considering how you're going to be taking your stance, neutrality is seen as a stance in itself.

Chris: Yeah, those two tie together for me. You're taking a stance, if you remain silent people will fill in the gaps for you.

I mean, we say it every time, we say it on this podcast all the time, "You don't own your brand, you manage it."

So I think, to that point, you can remain neutral, but that neutrality says something.

Bo Bothe: Well but I think that what ends up happening is you're never neutral. Nobody's ever been neutral. And we talked about this on the thing. Switzerland, for example, they weren't neutral. They were taking a stand. Their stand was that they wanted to make money from both sides.

And that, when you look at neutrality, there's no way to be completely neutral in anything. I think that this generation and the rise of social media and other mediums have made it to where people can see your motive, your motivations. I won't say ulterior motives but true motivations.

I think the thing to consider is, are you conscious about them? And are you doing it purposefully? Or are you just kind of willy nilly? With a brand, somebody's going to brand you if you're not branding yourself. Especially around issues like the ones we're facing right now.

How to Determine Your Brand's Stance on Important Issues

Chris: So I think for brands it's important for them to consider who they are and what they believe and what's important to them and really hammer out those mission, vision and values. So I guess my next question is for brands, what guides or what dictates the positions you do or don't take?

Bo: Yeah, I think you kind of nailed it. The brand drivers, you know mission, vision, values. And the associations, the way the company acts in general, end up guiding it.

We talked about this earlier, the decisions that we had to make about how we were going to address the current issues were very BrandExtract-ish. It wasn't like we all of a sudden overreacted in any way and took a position that was not authentic to who we were, who we've been over time.

And I think that that's key. It's key for your employees, but it's also key for the environment around you and your other stakeholders, and the market. I think if you don't have those things nailed down, if you're not living them day-to-day, it's a lot harder to make decisions when crisis or polarization happens.

Tia: Absolutely, Bo. To piggyback off of what you've said, you cannot let what is happening outwardly -- whether it be a movement or something else that happened -- you cannot let that dictate what your core values are or what your brand is. It should be the opposite.

Bo: Right. You dictate. I think you're absolutely right, Tia.

Cynthia: Exactly and I'm not calling out any brands or anyone, but there's kind of this little bit of this question of authenticity, where it's like, are people overcompensating for having a lack of brand values? They might overcompensate with messaging to kind of be in line with where everything's going. I think if you stay true to yourself and you actually have values that you can lean on, then you won't end up having to do that, or you'll be less likely to do that.

Bo: Yeah, and we have a core value of Do the Right Thing. And it's a really difficult value because everybody has grown up or been brought up in different environments and we're all different. Do the Right Thing can mean a different thing to everybody. But at the core of it, if you've got values that you believe in, if you hire for those values, if you train and manage and if you live those values, it's a lot easier when things like this happen to stay true to who you are and then not take a beating for being who you are either. It's like, "Oh okay, I expect them to be that way."

We may disagree -- we are a company of individuals with individual ideals -- but we somehow come together to produce and work together and live and have fun and serve the community together. And that's the great thing about this, the challenge is that some of these things have been really sensitive and you're walking on nerves. So how do you address those things in a way that represents your organization but also represents each individual?

The Importance of Being Prepared

Tia: In a nutshell, what we're saying is that in order to have our stance and decide how we want to move on these things, we need to do our pre-work first, we need to set our foundation and make sure that that is what we are going to be doing as an organization going forward.

Chris: Yeah and as long as you've done that pre-work, you're not reacting. Because there's a tendency sometimes to overreact or even underreact. But if you have those guiding principles set out and you live those every day, then you just go consult those values, you go consult what you stand for and then you know what your marching orders are, right?

You know how you're going to react to this kind of thing and I think that brands that do that the right way, I think they alleviate a lot of that pressure and a lot of that need for crisis communication and a lot of those kinds of things.

Cynthia: And the great thing too is it's not just for company leadership or for the way they communicate, it is for their employees as well, like we were talking about how it affects our staff and everyone who works for BE.

If you think about larger corporations, it's like if they don't have established guides or values, when things like this happen you might have your entire staff or all your employees saying, "What do we believe and where do we stand?" And if the leadership doesn't say anything either that leaves them all in a really awkward position, so the same thing goes.

Chris: And that's the thing, it's important to not only have those values but to live those values and to disseminate those values from the top down. You need to make sure that it permeates your organization so that everyone's aligned, while being sensitive to individuality. Bo, as you mentioned, we're all different people with different ideals, different morals -- all these kinds of things.

But I think there's something and I don't know if we can define it, but there's that thing that even though we are a group of people who have different ideals and different morals and different upbringings, where we can all come together and align and really be together in the face we want to present and the stance and the position that we want to take in some of these more serious, heavy issues.

Reconciling a Brand's Stance with Individuals' Stances

Bo: Right. I think the idea of a concert, an orchestra is kind of a great symbol of this. I think the America that I believe in, that I've grown up in is a place where our ideals -- freedom of religion, ability to express ourselves, differences -- those things collide.

Even our founding fathers with their foibles and their problems, they saw this was going to be a challenge with what they were promising. And that's the conflict that you see in organizations all the time too. You're a group of people who have different pressures and different ages and different races and different creeds and somehow you all kind of work together okay. And it works.

And I think some of that is just respect and it's respect for not just the rights you have but it's respect for just the human condition. The fact that we all have struggles, we all have things we deal with. I think that leaders need to be attuned to that along with everybody in the organization. That's what we were founded on in our country. We have to figure this out and work together in a way to make it work and all believe something different. That's pretty crazy when it comes down to it.

I think that one of the challenges that we're seeing today is that leaders seem to be representing a certain group of people as opposed to all the people. And I think that is a challenge in this polarization, whether it's in an organization, whether you like the chemists more than you like the loading dock people or whether it's in politics, whether you're blue or red, you are still elected to represent all the people. And I still lead all the people in our organization.

The four of us may have very different beliefs about certain things, I have to respect that and hopefully, you respect that back. And I think organizations that are founded on that basis -- again back to core values and mission and a shared understanding of that -- the pre-work that Tia is talking about, when they do it, makes it a lot easier to make decisions. And people can get along and have conversations as opposed to just shutting down or blowing up.

How to Determine What Your Brand Believes 

Chris: So ideally, you've done the pre-work, right? You've defined your mission, vision, values. Disseminated that kind of stuff.

But let's assume for a second that you haven't or even if you have and it's a really tough situation, what are some of the considerations that brands should take when they're deciding whether to:

  • Support position A
  • Support position B
  • Be neutral, which is as we talked about maybe taking a stance in itself

What are some of the implications that they need to consider as they're putting together messaging or communications or identifying their position on this kind of thing?

Tia: I think first and foremost we have to consider our audience internally and externally. We've got to consider our employees, we've got to consider the people that we work with, our partners, and also we've got to consider our customers and what they're thinking and what's important to them as well.

Chris: Yeah, I would even add the general public in there. Not that that should be the deciding factor but we do live in the time of cancel culture, right? We live in a time where you may have customers who agree with a position you take but the rest of the world doesn't and you get "canceled". So you know you need to consider that, you need to consider what this looks like to even the outside world.

Cynthia: Yeah and I think it just goes back to brands needing to know who they are. Who are you and what do you believe in? Whenever the public engages with brands especially loyal customers, brand advocates, whatever, when they engage with that company, it's like they want to have a conversation. So going back to this whole thing about who is the company? Who is the brand? What do you believe in? What are your values?

Even if you whittle it down to the individuals who are managing and speaking for the company through social channels or their accounts, they have to be on message and they have to know how to engage with that audience.

There's a bit of history involved with that too. What types of conversations have they had in the past? These are really important and evoke a lot of passion and emotion when you're speaking about these current events. You need to know who they are, you need to be prepared to communicate again in an authentic way, in a human way, so that it doesn't come across as kind of fake or weird or dismissive.

Bo: Yeah, which we saw a lot of. We've seen a lot of that over the last three months and I think there are two things here,

I think Chris, you said it, you don't want to just move to wherever your audience wants you to move. I mean you need to be authentic and be smart and if you're moving to where you would move normally then good for you, but if you're making a massive shift and you've always acted a certain way and now all of a sudden you're going to totally shift, it doesn't make any sense.

A good example recently of a brand standing up for what it believes in was Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg deciding that they don't want to be the arbiter of truth -- which sounds a little bit like a cop-out with a lot of the things that are going on but the reality is that has been their full-on position since day one. We want a free flow of information.

Now the complications of the world and what's going on and hackers and whatever, content farms and stuff like that, that complicates that decision of who they were, who they've been. But back to this cancel culture piece, there was a New York Times author came out and was like wait a minute, this is becoming censorship.

Again, if Twitter and Jack Dorsey are going to say we want the free flow of communication and information but then he's going to censor certain groups, just taking that step is counter to what the founding principles of Twitter were. I think that right now they're doing a good job of being handling that. Now the other side is that you may have other principles like be nice to people. But if that's one of their core values then Twitter has really gone awry.

Those are the kind of things that guide you -- your values, how your values respond to culture and then how your audience responds to your values. There may be a point where you need to adjust. And we've redone our values a couple of times at BrandExtract. Partly because of signs of the times, partly because of us growing up and figuring out who we were.

But culture changes, times change. Maybe we don't have to have one of our core values of Have Grit. Maybe it's not so tough five years from now and there's a more important thing that we need to focus on. But those are the kind of things that you still at the end of the day you've got to be authentic and true to who you are.

What is a Brand's Responsibility to Society?

Chris: Bo, you touched on the evolution of brands. And it feels like over the last five years, there's been mounting pressure on brands to contribute to society beyond just driving profits. Doing social good. There's a CEO letter that recently came out that basically said corporations main driver is not only to drive profits, it's to minimize their negative impact on the world basically. The idea was that it used to be all about profits but now really it's about doing good or doing no harm.

So I think brands are being put in a position and being slowly pushed to have to reconcile these things. Maybe they can sit out conversations about social justice, but there are things that I think depending on your company, you can't sit out anymore. Do you guys find that true or do you think that there are still places where you can sit things out and don't have to address certain things?

Cynthia: If you're a large company -- especially if you're B2C company but even B2B companies -- somebody's going to put you under a microscope. It might be an investor who's incredibly interested in how you're treating the environment or it might be a large publication and your audience wants to know what the inner workings of your company are like.

Somebody's going to call you out, you're going to get called out. Just be prepared for it. Back to this whole thing where corporations are treated like individuals, I believe corporations even have their own rights like an individual now so be prepared to be approached as an individual and people are going to ask you questions.

Tia: I think that we may be at a point where some companies or some topics may have the luxury of not having to have a stance or response. But in quick short order, in the next couple of years, everybody's going to have a magnifying glass on them so you may be able to sit this one out now but in a couple of years, you're not going to be able to do that.

Generational Differences in Brand Expectations

Bo: We've got multiple generations here I think I'm the old man in the room but we grew up with the thought of: don't talk about politics, don't talk about religion. Some things are off-limits. But I never was like that, I always kind of did it, but that also went for the companies that people worked for.

I think there are two things you brought into this, Chris.

  1. Investors, like BlackRock, are looking at ESG factors. We know this from some of our clients, who they come to, and say what is your ESG strategy or your environmental strategy? What is your racial injustice strategy? How are you going to achieve this? And oh by the way we're pulling funding if you don't have this addressed in the next six months. So there's that dynamic that's going on. The market is making a move.
  2. And then there's the dynamic that Tia and I talked about from a generational standpoint of I had no expectations of the companies that I worked for to step into the ring in politics or religion or social injustice or anything like that. I expected them to be good, I expected the hire people, I expected them to address equality in pay and all that kind of stuff and be fair, but I never expected them to take a position. And that's not the case in today's generation. Today's generation is like what do you believe in? What do you stand for? And I won't work for you if you don't believe in the same things.

I do think it's a little misguided back to what we talked about in representing a company of different individuals. Any company taking one position might alienate 50% of their audience so we have to be careful with that. But at least the ability for those people to share their voice and the company to allow for that if they're not going to take a position is going to be critical for brands moving forward and companies moving forward.

Because there's no way, you just can't hide, you can't be Switzerland anymore because everybody knows that you're just in it for the money. You can't hide that anymore. So what drives you? What are your values? And know that you're taking a stand, to Tia's point, by not taking a stand.

Chris: Yeah. And the internet and social media have given us an increased level of transparency to where you can go and check the receipts, right? You can always go back and look and see who's done what, where they have fallen on specific issues or haven't fallen.

So it makes thinking about this as a brand, even as an individual, it makes it important to consider how is this going to look. But the flip side of that, and Bo we've talked about this before, is how do things age, right? If I take a stance right now, 10 years from now, is somebody going to dig up an old tweet and say wait 10 years ago you were on this side but now you're on a different side? And so it's tough man, it's a minefield.

Bo: Yeah, but the truth is you can't. No matter what, people grow, people change, things happen, you say stupid stuff -- our founding fathers were slaveholders. I mean, it is what it is, right? It's how you react and respond to that stuff today. How do you make sure there is justice? How do you make sure that those things are there today?

So many media personalities said something stupid 15 years ago when it was okay to say those things and people laughed about them. That doesn't make it right but that shouldn't define that person today. Now if they have a history of doing that and all their tweets over time are like that and then for a year they decide that they're not that way? Okay, that's a different deal.

And so we have to be careful with that. Ask the question, "Do you believe this? Does that matter?" I think the judgment of people and corporations so quickly, it's a dangerous place to be because we've all made mistakes.

The Drew Brees Case Study

Chris: Yeah, and you're talking about context right? All of it is within context, right? I'll use Drew Brees as an example, right, he's got a personal brand.

Drew Brees recently came out and stated what he believed but it was in the middle of a lot of people, particularly a lot of people in the NFL, coming together to support racial justice, right? But if you checked Drew Brees' record and notice that he's given millions of dollars to minority communities in New Orleans over the years and see how much he's done for the community of New Orleans, you can go back and look and say maybe he was a little misguided here or he said this at the wrong time but "canceling" him is not the right thing to do because we have the context of him been on the right side of all this stuff for the past decade and a half.

Cynthia: Right. It's like his actions and what he's saying, they don't quite mesh. You're kind of like, "You know you did all this stuff over here, right?"

Why Actions Speak Louder than Statements

Tia: Well it's all about, as Cynthia said before, authenticity. And it's not just about what you say or a statement that you put out there, it's how you backup your actions. That's just as important as putting out a statement. It is making sure that if you are taking a stance on something, you are perpetuating that stance by doing things to further the stance.

Chris: I'm really glad you brought that up actually because that's a huge piece of this. You can put out that beautiful press release, you can put out that amazing tweet or whatever it is, but eventually, if people check back on you in a month, two months, six months and realize it's all lip service and that your company hasn't changed anything or you haven't supported these causes, then you'll probably get dragged in the mud and rightfully so.

You don't want people to jump on a bandwagon and just use it as an opportunity for good publicity. That's becoming more and more I guess transparent than ever.

One thing I want to shift a little bit to is – if you are going to put out a statement or you are going to take a position, whether it's a tweet, whether it's a press release, whether it's a video, whether it's a commercial, whatever it is, what's important to communicate out to your audience? And again that audience is definitely your target audience, it's your partners, it's potential employees, potential investors for some companies, but at the end of the day I think it's also there for public consumption. So what are things that we would recommend that brands consider when they're crafting these positions and/or statements?

Cynthia: I think first we need to see where they're at. Have they had a guide post? Have they had guidelines? Do they have an already established structure for sharing things related to their values on their website? If it's a company that's already been acting, they've been involved with the community, they've been giving back, they could probably produce articles or produce an opinion piece or something that ties into this is what we've already been doing.

"We've got all this behind us that we've done and we're here with you today" verses "Hey man, this matters to us, too." Those are the two tracks I think we would have to look at to see are we here or there.

Chris: That's not to say that if you haven't supported minorities and black lives in the past with donations or anything like that and you don't have the receipts, to go and check. I think one of the things that's important is to identify opportunities if you're going to put together a commercial or a press release is "What we're going to do going forward" because maybe we have been asleep on this, whatever cause that we're talking about.

Cynthia: They need to have a plan. Absolutely. Because if there's no plan for follow-up and they fall flat on their face that's worse than probably keeping their mouth shut.

Then you want to talk about retribution afterwards, it's not going to be pretty.

Tia: It's very important to have a plan. If you haven't had a stance on something, say for instance we're talking about saving the whales in the ocean, and you are a company that dumps millions and millions of gallons of toxic waste into the ocean, you have to acknowledge your mistakes and have a plan for how to move forward.

Bo: The big thing is mission, vision, values, core values – living your beliefs and doing that over a period of time gives you a little bit of ground cover when something bad happens. And that's not the intent but it does give it to you, right? And then having a plan. The timing with Drew Brees and addressing it the right way.

BrandExtract may not be putting everything on banners but we've always taken a measured approach to things. "Here's what we're going to do, okay now let's go do this, let's put this in the system and let's go do this and let's get our hands dirty and let's be involved." If it's authentic and they've always been that way, then by all means man grab the tiger by the tail.

To Tia's point, if they don't have a plan and they don't have all that together, there's nothing wrong with taking a bit of time to make an adjustment. We've seen some reactions that I'm surprised that shareholders are okay with, with these large organizations giving millions of dollars to nonprofits that they know nothing about.

There's like 500 Black Lives Matter chapters and there is a danger that you could put it in the hands of somebody ... let's just say this, money is not going to be as optimized as it could be if they did a little research, took a breath and found an organization that could take that donation and do more with it.

I'm not going to say anybody is trying to be disingenuous or misleading, but the reality is, if you're a public company and you're a brand in the marketplace and you have this capital and you want to invest it in something. I think today's the time you can do that more than you've ever done it. It used to be all about profit, now it's not.

BlackRock is establishing that the millennial generation is going to demand that you be involved. And money can now move into that realm a lot freer than it did before. That's a huge benefit to what's going on now. Whether it's the environment or black lives, social injustice across the board, equality, whatever it is, there's going to be a very American piece to this too because we're a very generous society.

There's going to be recapitalization that nonprofits and people that are making a difference are going to have access to that they wouldn't have otherwise in the past because it was just seen as the marketing expense and not something that the organization needed to do to be responsible to its shareholder.

Chris: And this is a great opportunity for a plug for our ESG podcast episode, where Bo, the stuff you're talking about, the capital that's available to certain companies that meet certain standards, there are green funds out there. There are things that are specific to people who have their ESG in order. One of the things about that episode that we talked about and there's a lot of tie in here. More and more ESG reporting is becoming tied to good business.

There's a whole branding component to it too, it's about understanding who you are and making those shifts and getting to the point where you are authentic in not only just what you're reporting but making sure that your brand reflects those things that you're reporting on and you're trying to get better because there's layers to that.

You guys talked about looking before you leap. Let's say something horrible happens, like we all saw the George Floyd video. If you take a step back to be thoughtful and think about how you want to speak out on that or what position you want to take, I'm curious, do you think that hesitation can hurt you? And if so, is that worth the risk to gather your thoughts and then be thoughtful?

Cynthia: I think right now there's there's so much noise. I don't think there's anything wrong with taking a breath and thinking about it before you start. Just think about it for a little bit, I don't think you have to just jump in automatically and throw out your instant reaction, I think that's a bad idea. 

Tia: I agree with you Cynthia, I think that it's very important for you to take a breath and not just be reactionary. However, waiting too long may put you in that category as you're not taking a stance – and that is a stance in itself. Fill in the blanks where your silence is.

Bo: And I think people forget that you're an organization and the size that you are. The organization working through its people and it's employees and even its customers is a big benefit here. I think a pause is important unless you have a set strategy, you know exactly how you're going to address it.

A lot of the stuff we're dealing with right now, pandemics, racial injustice and rioting, I mean some of these things, there's no playbook, there's no previous playbook for that.

"We're all going to work remotely for five months and wear masks." There's no playbook for that so it makes sense to take a breath and go okay, now you're going to have to take some short term quick things you've got to do. "Oh my gosh I'm going to run out of cash, I got to do something." Or "Oh my gosh they're on our doorstep, what do we do?" Or "Oh my gosh, 20 of my people have COVID."

You have to respond to that, but to Tia's point, if you do have the chance, take a breath, take a second and go "Okay, how are we going to respond?" if you don't have a plan already. Nobody could have been perfectly prepared for all this stuff that's happening.

And so it makes sense to take a day. And so if you are going to take a breath, get it together quickly so that you can respond in a right way.

Cynthia: And again if you're prepared ahead of time and your house is in order then it's going to be easier to respond than if you're not prepared, which is more important than ever. It's going to be difficult to respond quickly and, yes, there's going to be that silence.

Chris: It shortens that lead time if you've got your house in order like you mentioned. If you've got your house in order it's easier to find your keys as you're running out the door. So authenticity and thoughtfulness I think is greater than speed here.

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