Taking a Stand: How It Affects Your Brand
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Taking a Stand: How It Affects Your Brand

More and more companies are taking a stand in order to promote their brand online and are committing budget and resources to do so. Customers—especially millennials—want their favorite brands to reflect their own values and views on society through things like campaigns focusing on trending social injustice stories, speaking out against discrimination or promoting conservation. Employees of these companies feel no differently.

The marketing teams behind those brands must study the behavior of their target audience, along with their opinions and tastes, and be sure that the company’s position is in line with that of their customers. They also must collect data on the opinions of their employees to know whether their staff believe in the brand’s causes and whether the values and behaviors the company is outwardly projecting are aligned with the brand. Marketing teams then use this research to craft their brands’ positioning by defining what they think is the ‘right thing’ to do or say for their market.

Controversial messaging and its potential implications

Some brands have made controversial marketing decisions that come with commercial implications, as Nike recently discovered. Their decision to feature American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a campaign was guaranteed to spark controversy after his protests against racial injustice. There’s little doubt that Nike weighed the pros and cons of their move and decided it was a storm that would strengthen them in the long run—or at least appeal to enough of their customers who held the same views. It’s probable that Nike also gauged their employees’ views on the issue and moved forward with the confidence that their actions were in line with the majority.

Another case where the reaction of employees may have led to a change of course by management was Project Maven, a Google initiative to provide analytical technology for processing military drone footage. While senior leadership was said to be enthusiastic about pursuing the highly lucrative work, thousands of employees and customers registered their opposition to the program, some with a nod to the now redundant internal motto of “Don’t be evil.” The view of the employees prevailed, and Google stepped away from the project, citing the employee backlash as a primary reason. While its foray into the US government military field may not have helped Google’s reputation, many applauded Google’s readiness to listen to the views of its employees.

Messaging around social issues

Not all companies will take a stand on controversial issues—it’s not for everyone. A communication strategy that highlights social responsibility or support for the big social issues of the day is another way to promote your brand. But efforts to portray an online image of a company that is caring, socially aware or championing equality must begin by having these values embedded in the internal structure of the company. It’s one thing to have a corporate message or social media campaign endorsing gender equality, for example, but any marketing efforts around supporting such a position will quickly turn to dust if it’s revealed that the company has a wide gender pay gap or has no female employees in their senior management team.

One positive example is the outdoor clothing company Patagonia which has a long history of supporting environmental and social activism. As well as lending a voice to many worthy campaigns, they have internalized their values by promoting workers’ conditions, using recycled materials for many of their products and having a transparent supply chain.

Matching inner and outer values

When employees feel they have a stake in the way a brand speaks to its audience, it follows that the voice of the brand will be all the more authentic. Employees will know immediately whether the company values espoused on social media or in PR campaigns are mirrored in the company’s day-to-day behavior—in other words, whether they walk the talk. A recent report in the Harvard Business Review showed that only 19% of employees felt a strong alignment between how their employer promotes itself and the reality as they experience it in the workplace. Worldwide data indicated that workers in India and Latin America have a stronger than average sense of alignment, while the disconnect is sharpest in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In addition, employee alignment can influence customer service. A person’s sense of engagement with their employer inevitably impacts how they perform their work and behave as the public face of their company. An employee who feels listened to and who has the sense that their opinion matters is far more likely to project a “listening” persona to customers than one who believes that their views aren’t considered important.

Is what we say what we do?

An integral part of a brand’s communication with its customers is its strapline: its essence distilled into a few short words. Straplines are designed to be catchy, memorable phrases that create a positive link between the customer and the brand. Successful straplines include McDonalds’ “I’m lovin’ it,” Subway’s “Eat fresh” and retail giant Tesco’s “Every little helps.” These three examples are positive messages of enjoyment, healthiness and value respectively, but for them to be successful, employees at all levels must be fully on board with the core sentiment.

Let’s take a fictitious example of a big energy supplier with the brand slogan “We listen to you.” When a customer phones the company to report an error on their latest bill, they’re passed to three different representatives. Each one asks them for their account details as if starting the call from scratch, and at the end the customer is told someone will look into the issue and call them back. The customer receives no return call, and the error on their bill is still there when they receive a reminder a couple of weeks later. What is the likely reaction in this case? How credible will the “We listen to you” strapline feel to the customer when, from their experience, nobody has listened to, or worse still, cared about their issue? How will the employees feel about their company’s public brand message when they’re well aware of its day-to-day failings?

For a company to successfully deploy a strapline like this, staff at all levels of the business need to be involved in its implementation. Call center teams need to be empowered to take ownership of a customer’s query and see it through to resolution, with immediate support from senior colleagues where necessary. This way, the customer can have confidence that their issues will be dealt with quickly and effectively—that the strapline accurately represents the way the company does business.

There are many elements that factor in to how a customer or an employee will react to a company’s online messaging. To start, straplines and campaigns must align with customer and employee opinions. While some PR responses may be out of the company’s control, it’s natural for consumers to assume that when a company takes a stand, it reflects all stakeholders’ values (employees and customers alike). If not, the brand’s credibility may have to take a seat.