Understanding The Fine Line Of Activism For Today’s Leaders

Understanding The Fine Line Of Activism For Today’s Leaders

A look at how leaders should address the fine line of activism to meet the demands of both customers and shareholders in an increasingly socially divisive world.

The following is a guest piece by former executive Anne Bahr Thompson.

Profound changes in cultural sentiment are shifting the landscape for business. An increasingly divided political climate has had many companies—large and small, new and legacy—across industries stepping up and taking positions on issues typically outside the realm of business.

Over the past year, the number of brands that have taken activist stances on topics in the public debate has grown significantly. Rather than decreasing the call for companies to behave responsibly, government policy appears to be increasing the pressure. More and more, the public is demanding that leadership brands declare a point of view on social justice, civil liberties, the environment, and even more.

Taking a public stand can be polarizing. Companies that do so run must weigh the risks of losing more customers than they gain, as well as angering employees, investors, and other stakeholders. Not everyone defines doing good in the same way. To minimize backlash and not violate trust with customers, employees, and other stakeholders, it’s crucial that a company only takes a stand that reflects its purpose, values, and, importantly, its operational practices.

Leadership is now intertwined with responsibility

Beginning as early as December 2011, my three years of research into brand leadership, good corporate citizenship, and favorite brands, which ultimately led to a five-step model of Brand Citizenship, demonstrated that leadership and responsibility can no longer be managed as separate from one another.

Step 3 of the model – Responsibility (behave fairly and treat employees, suppliers and the environment well) – emerged as the pivot point between being a brand that provides solutions to personal ME problems and needs and one that addresses generalized WE worries about the economy, the problems in the world, and the planet.

Participants told us that brands, which behave transparently and, even more importantly, sincerely, encourage us to bring out the best of ourselves and progress society. They considered these brands leaders. At the time, they identified issues related to social justice, civil liberties, and the environment as safe territory for brands to take up positions.

Fast forward to June 2015, legacy and newer brands alike, such as American Airlines, BuzzFeed, Honey Maid, Ketel One, MasterCard, Spotify, Target, and Uber, flew the rainbow flag for marriage equality. Later that year, Airbnb, Alcoa, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Monsanto, Walmart, and many others openly signed President Obama’s climate change pledge.

A turning point

The Breitbart controversy in November 2016, however, appears to have been a turning point. Allstate, EarthLink, Kellogg’s, Nest, Target, and Warby Parker pulled ads from the alternative-right media platform because of strong racist and anti-Semitic views. Steve Bannon, who became chief strategist to President Donald Trump after serving as his campaign’s chief executive, was a founding board member for Breitbart News.

While companies that supported the Supreme Court’s decision about gay marriage and Obama’s climate change pledge were generally praised, those that ended their relationships with Breitbart News, most notably Kellogg’s, faced repercussions.

On November 30, 2016, Breitbart News retaliated against Kellogg’s by posting an inflammatory article with the headline, “#DumpKelloggs: Breakfast Brand Blacklists Breitbart, Declares Hate for 45,000,000 Readers.” Highlighting Kellogg’s and labeling the “war against Breitbart News as bigoted and anti-American,” Breitbart News Editor in Chief, Alexander Marlow, angrily called for readers to sign a petition urging people to boycott all of Kellogg’s products.

In addition to disagreeing with Kellogg’s stance, many others were angered that Breitbart News’s values hadn’t troubled Kellogg’s and other brands until after Steve Bannon was named then President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist. For some, Kellogg’s decision was less about the brand’s absolute stance and more about the company’s inconsistent behavior.

Brand activism grows more overtly political

Throughout 2017, the number of brands taking overt political positions, most notably on immigration and climate change, has grown. While these two issues clearly reflect the areas participants in my research identified as safe for activism, a number of companies are now taking overtly anti-Trump administration stances.

Many tech giants expressed opposition to the Trump administration’s controversial immigration ban, which potentially impacts their workforces directly. Known for democratizing the hospitality industry and valuing equality, Airbnb went further than most tech companies setting a goal to provide housing for 100,000 people in need and contributed $4 million to the International Rescue Committee in support of displaced people worldwide.

And the ride hailing app Lyft surpassed its direct competitor and industry leader, Uber, in Apple’s App Store after Uber did not participate in related protests and a taxi strike at JFK airport. Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union as it denounced the ban and the hashtag #DeleteUber trended on social media.

Former New York City mayor and business leader Michael Bloomberg has been spearheading the fight for the US to meet its Paris accord greenhouse gas targets. Across industries, corporations including Burton Snowboards, Apple, Campbell Soup, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Target, and Timberland, signed an open letter, “We Are Still In,” alongside elected officials such as mayors and governors. The letter publicly declared their support to meet commitments despite President Trump’s decision to pull out of it.

Ideals: the next logical step

The brands we choose are extensions of who we are. They act as badges for what we are about to other people. The acid test of a satisfying brand relationship is rooted not in grand gestures or even in constant chatter and interactions, but rather in thoughtful, empathic actions and small, meaningful deeds that both improve and enrich our daily lives and help us to feel as though we belong to a group of like-minded people.

Step 4 – Community – of the model of Brand Citizenship demonstrates how physically, virtually and emotionally, brands have the power to rally communities of like-minded people and influence to change our behavior for the better and fix social problems.

Over my three years of qualitative and quantitative research with more than 6000 people, many participants consistently told us that they felt better about themselves when they bought brands that “did good.” And that they questioned their brand choices when they learned a brand wasn’t behaving responsibly.

With a divided populace, it seems logical that people are now expecting the brands they buy to also reflect their ideals. After all, businesses have progressed from historically targeting audiences for their products and services based on demographics to psychographics, and they now micro-target based on people’s lifestyle aspirations and values.

Sincerity always wins our trust, especially over the long term

As distrust of politicians and longstanding institutions has increased, people accept little at face value. They are adept at seeing through crafted messaging, political rhetoric, and marketing hype. Like a sincere person, a sincere brand openly shares its point of view on the world. It does not aggrandize itself or take advantage of the latest news cycle.

To minimize the risk of violating trust – the starting point of good of Brand Citizenship—it’s essential that any stance a company takes reflects its purpose, values and operating principles and policies. As more customers and employees demand that brands take activist stances, companies that sincerely do so will be touted as leaders.

Anne Bahr Thompson is the founder of the Brand Citizenship movement and author of “Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel both Purpose and Profit“. A former executive director of strategy and planning and head of consulting at Interbrand, Anne founded Onesixtyfourth, a boutique consultancy, to integrate cultural shifts & a social conscience into brand development.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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