This following article was originally published in Twin Cities Business magazine.
Last year showed that companies and brands can no longer be bystanders in challenging social justice issues. It’s increasingly riskier to stay silent than to weigh in.
High-profile companies — from Patagonia to Ben & Jerry’s to Nike — have built their reputations as corporate social activists and helped introduce the concept of conscious capitalism. These pioneers and a growing number of corporate senior leaders are increasingly weighing in on social issues and taking a stand on contentious public policy issues.
At the same time, The Harris Poll, Edelman Trust Barometer and other pollsters show that Americans trust companies more than the federal government to help find solutions to challenging issues. As the government struggles to address societal challenges, people increasingly turn to companies to advocate for positive change.
Consumer demand is causing corporate social activism to evolve and spread rapidly in the face of new challenges and controversies. The murder of George Floyd accelerated a new level of visible advocacy as companies and their leaders weighed in on issues like Black Lives Matter, having already taken a stand on immigration, food insecurity and trade policy. Most recently, the contentious debate over voting rights in Georgia quickly embroiled Georgia companies and their leaders, eventually spreading to other companies that are headquartered far outside the Peach State.
This groundswell of corporate action foretells involvement in other contentious issues, especially when headline-making events happen within the state where a company operates. Minnesota may show us how this develops next. After the high-profile Derek Chauvin trial and killing of Daunte Wright, a recent national poll by Maru/Blue and Colle McVoy showed that nearly 60% of Americans expect Minnesota companies to help address issues of brutality and systemic racism within the state. As a result, companies in Minnesota and their leaders should be prepared to take a clear stand on policing in Minnesota, including how to support public policy changes in communities, Minnesota and Congress. Minnesota companies need to also consider how these events and their subsequent corporate actions affect their “based in Minnesota” reputation. About 40% of respondents said the repeated stories of Minnesota’s police-involved killings have negatively affected perceptions of the state as a whole. The state’s declining reputation may impact national recruitment and other business operations.
As companies consider this data, knowing how and when to take a stand on issues requires a clearly defined corporate activism and brand citizenship framework. Prioritizing the issues should not depend on what’s trending on a social channel or news headlines. Quick or one-off actions that suggest “woke washing” or opportunism can significantly damage a company’s reputation. Here are immediate considerations for leaders when planning their corporate activism next steps.
Now is the time to consider how and when your company will take a stand. Anticipating societal and consumer demand will not only help protect your corporate reputation, but it also has the potential to protect sales and future growth.