By: Avi Lekowsky  | 

Corporations Taking a Stand: Should They Care

Companies large and small are constantly vying for the eyes of their consumers. In an age where fast food Twitter accounts are more famous for their personalities than their food, companies are relentlessly trying to personalize their relationship with their customers. A prominent strategy for a company to achieve this is to display its social responsibility efforts. A report from Markstein in 2019 found that 70% of consumers want to know what efforts corporations are making to address social and environmental issues. The study also found that 46% of all consumers surveyed and 51% of millenials pay attention to a brand’s social responsibility efforts prior to deciding to buy a product. This demonstrates something important: people care about the ethical aspects of a company and its products.

Yet, ethics are, at times, also a political argument. In 2017, President Donald Trump expressed his desire to have two national monuments decreased by millions of acres. Both monuments, Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, would be minimized in size by about 85% and 50%, respectively. By revoking the Antiquities Act, the President sought to remove the presidential powers to designate areas of land as culturally and environmentally significant. Many environmentalists and conservationists opposed these proclamations, but the most prominent voice protesting the president’s action was Patagonia, the clothing outfitter known for its rugged and outdoor styles and whose vests are ubiquitous across the professional world. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, even decided to temporarily redesign the company's website homepage, placing a simple, albeit pointed, text stating, “The President Stole Your Land.” While it's unclear if this political attack directly affected sales, the company noted 2018 sales were up and approaching $1 billion.

Another instance of a company taking a stance on a contentious social issue occurred when Nike featured Colin Kapernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose “kneeling” to protest police brutality during the national anthem ignited widespread controversy. Many claim that the symbolic gesture led to Kapernick being cut from the 49ers and to his subsequent ostracization from the NFL. Nike escalated the debate by including him in an ad in late 2018 which was captioned with “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Much like Kapernick’s kneeling, many people were divided on the content of the ad. Videos appeared online of people burning their Nike sneakers, while others went out of their way to buy Nike products. In an interview with Fast Company, Phil Knight, founder of Nike, said, “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people.” That decision ultimately ended up working well for Nike. In 2018, the company received a $6 billion brand valuation and a 31% increase in sales. 

However, not every company that has tried this tactic has come out unscathed. Gillette’s campaign titled “The Best a Man Can Be” drew immediate firestorms of comments and boycott declarations. The campaign had little to do with men’s products; instead, the commercial addressed the #Metoo movement and toxic masculinity, admonishing men for their behavior towards women and rhetorically asking “is this best a man can be?” To many, it seemed like a company jumping on to whatever they thought was today’s most relevant issue in society and using it to build brand awareness. Today, the ad has received 1.5 million dislikes on its YouTube page compared to 812,000 likes. But Gillette is far from the only recent example of a company misfiring with a social issue. Pepsi encountered a similar reaction while using Kendall Jenner in a commercial addressing “Black Lives Matter” protests.

While some ad campaigns are political in nature, it appears consumers are, for the most part, altruistic in their buying habits. When a company promises to donate a portion of their sales to a charity, highlights their worker compensation programs, or expands their efforts to help fight hunger, consumers are more likely to buy and to continue supporting their product. This demonstrates that there are some causes that consumers universally agree are good and worthwhile. But, if a cause is divisive, a company has to clearly analyze the implications of incorporating it into their marketing campaign. Patagonia’s ad was successful because they were able to connect an environmental issue to their outdoorsy brand. Nike, too, was able to make the connection between athlete and athletic provider. Gillete, on the other hand, failed to make a noticeable connection between its menscare products and the messages it was displaying; the company’s efforts were seen as nothing more than a cheap ploy to add “social points” to a company's profile. These case studies demonstrate that when choosing an issue to promote in the social-awareness sphere, a company must be sure that the message is tastefully produced and directly related to the brand.

Photo Caption: We all have opinions. Are companies allowed to have them as well?
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons