For and against – Should brands get involved in social issues?

Published on Wednesday, November 25th, 2020 by julian

Lighthouse Communications > News + Views > For and against – Should brands get involved in social issues?

In a world of increasing tension and acrimony, social issues have come to the fore as one of the key challenges of our times. From #MeToo to Black Lives Matter, issues with deep historical roots have flared up around the world and resulted in everything from violent protests on the streets to high profile resignations in the boardroom.

But where does all this leave companies and brands? All companies to some extent reflect the world around them, for better or worse, and their employees are often people with strong views about social matters. In some organisations, there’s a fairly unified view reflecting a certain homogeneity among employees, whereas in others, opinions are as divided as society itself.

In this context, does it make sense for brands to get more involved in social issues? We take a look, for and against…

The case FOR
Pretty simply, it’s time for brands to step up. For some years now it’s been fairly well known that the faith people have in governments and NGOs to make real, positive change in society has been dwindling. The buck has been passed to business. More recently, the calls for business to make a tangible difference in their community, be it global or local, have started to come from within. When there is demand for businesses to make positive change from both their customers and their employees, it’s no longer an option to sit idly by.

Before 2020 rolled around, the world was experiencing almost unprecedented economic prosperity, so it’s hardly surprising that people looked to booming business with expectations to use their profit and influence to do some good in the world.

Perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence in supporting the need to meet the public’s demands is a study from 2019 that found consumers wouldn’t care if 74% of brands simply vanished from their lives. The question is, then, how do you make sure your brand is part of the 26% that consumers would miss? We know that the brands consumers care about are those that are meaningful to them. Above and beyond adding value to their lives and offering a great service, the brands that do this are those that consumers feel are making a difference.

The case for a brand adopting a stance on social issues is not quite as simple as just ticking a box to pander to a particular type of audience or customer. In fact, there is real danger in doing so, lest it be labelled ‘purpose-washing’ – a token attempt to use social issues to gain favour with the public.

The answer here is to ensure that you have a right to play in the space you enter, and if one doesn’t immediately lend itself to your brand’s identity, you have to earn that right. For example, ANZ didn’t become known for LGBTQI+ support overnight. It took years of effort to earn that right.

However, the case for real brand alignment to issues starts with a brand’s values. Those values must be intrinsic to the brand, and they must be lived out internally before they can be communicated publicly. What is potentially more damaging than purpose-washing, or even doing nothing, is a brand failing to live up to the values behind its stance.

The case AGAINST
Social issues are difficult and complicated, with no easy answers. There are millions of public servants in governments around the world dedicated to various social issues, supported by think tanks and other organisations. That is their purpose, but the purpose of a business is to make money and to grow, thereby employing people and contributing to its host nation’s economic prosperity. One could argue that getting involved in social issues is a distraction from its main purpose.

Many have argued that as a business exists within a society, it thereby relies on a tacit licence to operate from that society, and should exercise appropriate corporate responsibility in order to maintain public goodwill.

That’s true to an extent, and an idea that is increasingly popular. But all it could actually require a business to do is keep its head down and not do anything stupid. A cynic may say that getting actively involved in social issues in the worst instances can be nothing but virtue-signalling, driven by executives and employees wanting to show how socially aware they are by jumping on the bandwagon.

But where does this all end? Google’s early mantra was ‘Don’t be evil’, which is a statement most people would undoubtedly agree with. But how does that look now after years of accusations ranging from abusing people’s personal data and undermining privacy to breaching copyright, avoiding taxes and supporting censorship in China?

The Google example is a classic case of sincere early ambitions meeting the complexities of modern societies on a global scale, and the business having to reframe its narrative as a result. Critics could argue that Google, while genuine, was also naïve to adopt that stance in the first place. This is especially as people in the US, and then internationally, might harbour doubts about some of the darker implications of online technologies – concerns that differ from Google’s more rosy view of its own capabilities.

Once you’ve nailed your colours to the mast and then have to retract or amend the position, you undermine your brand’s consistency, and also face the problem of what to do with it next. Pick another social issue, and you might also find out some way down the track that the world is not as black and white as you thought it was, and there are many shades of grey out there.

As a wise man once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Ryan Marnell & Julian Elliott

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