Events of the past few months have put companies on the spot and in the spotlight.
Brands such as BMW and Allstate withdrew ads from Bill O’Reilly’s show following recent sexual harassment accusations against him; Pepsi’s recent campaign, featuring Kendall Jenner, attempts to align the brand with broader social movements, though its execution didn’t land as expected.
Many have taken a stand because they recognize that the politicization and polarization of our communities are increasingly expressed through our relationships with brands. As Apple’s Tim Cook famously said, “I’ve never found being on the sideline a successful place to be.”
Even if they have the best intentions, when corporate leaders cross the line into a political stance through political donations, vocal support or opposition, they run the risk of undermining their company’s identity, alienating their workforce and customer base, and becoming social flashpoints. But this is not a recent phenomenon. Political, social, moral and corporate values have often intersected in the past, including the American civil rights movement, apartheid and, more recently, in debates over organizational culture and gender equality.
In recent decades we’ve formed deep emotional bonds with the brands we work for, purchase and support. They simplify the frenetic world around us, help us to believe in something bigger than what’s in front of us, and allow us to belong to a tribe beyond our family. In previous generations, we turned to other sorts of ‘brands’ for these needs: cultural icons, sports teams, faith groups or battalions. Today’s brands have learned to respond and align themselves directly with these requirements, drawing on people’s allegiances as strongly as other cultural groups do. This is true for consumers but even more so for employees.
When all is going well, companies enjoy the positive impact of these bonds. But this social role of brands is also what drives the calls to delete Uber and boycott Starbucks. These expressions of anger are symbolic of the new relationship between brands, personal identity, values and expression. It is also a reminder that the real owners of a brand are not in the executive suite, but rather the consumers on the street.
Corporations should be well placed to navigate this territory, guided by their purpose and values. Used well, these are the glue that binds the organization together, the vision that directs belief and action. Most corporations have invested heavily in articulating these guiding principles; now is the time to test their meaning. Together they should help you transcend the polarizing rhetoric and actions of political leadership.
So, subject to the particular direction of your purpose and values, where should you take a stand and where should you tread lightly? What are the lessons to be learned from those who have made the leap?
Seek common ground
Avoiding the character politics and polarizing issues of the moment, Rex Tillerson, the new U.S. Secretary of State, emphasized a set of core shared values — accountability, honesty and respect — in his first speech to State Department employees. In quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Tim Cook reminded Apple employees that while they “may have all come on different ships” they were “all in the same boat now.” Reaffirming your values is not only reassuring for employees in a time of uncertainty but also a necessary first step in setting a direction that employees can rally behind.
Think beyond national and political borders
The reach and the speed of social media will quickly expose a brand’s actions anywhere in the world. When IKEA (through a franchisee) created a local catalog with male-only models to appeal to Israel’s ultra-orthodox community, it learned that when it comes to brand values, there are broader implications to thinking globally and acting locally. Worldwide media picked up on the incident. IKEA is a much-loved brand whose values include “leadership by example” and “togetherness and enthusiasm.” Brands need to tune themselves to local cultures, but cannot afford to compromise their core values to do so.
Actions speak louder than words
Jamie Dimon’s commitment to increase the wages for his lowest paid workers transcends national politics, helping to differentiate JPMorgan in an industry subject to social criticism and position it as a brand for all people. Similarly, Starbucks’ pledge to hire 10,000 refugees is a bold action inspired by their purpose and values. Salesforce announced this week that it would spend $3 million to close gender and minority wage gaps. These companies went beyond bromides to make a real difference in people’s lives.
Share values not opinions
Jumping off the political fence to take a position rooted in your values will likely alienate some customers. But if your position stems from a belief in your purpose and values that have been demonstrated beyond the issue of the moment, it can transcend individual positions and strengthen the bond with long-term loyalists and promoters. As Target reported on its position around same-sex bathrooms, any financial impact was indiscernible.
Article originally published on The Independent on May 6, 2017.