Taking a stand: the risks and benefits of corporate activism

Research from Ipsos Mori, the market research company, indicates many in politics and the media believe that businesses have a licence, or even an obligation, to speak out on important, and perhaps controversial, socio-political issues.

But if companies are considering taking a stand on a big social or political issue, what do they need to consider to get it right?

Ahead of Australia’s same-sex marriage vote, Coca-Cola added rainbow lights to its Sydney billboard and launched ‘Love’ Coke cans in support of marriage equality. Earlier this year, Heineken launched its ‘Open Your World’ campaign that put people with opposite views together to see what happened.

While these have been viewed positively, there have been some spectacular backfires. Namely Pepsi and its Kendall Jenner advert portrayed the reality TV star helping to calm a riot by giving a police officer a can of Pepsi. Perhaps worse, the ad used real footage of riots and protests which many saw as grossly insensitive to the issues at stake during those real examples.

Ipsos Mori’s Global Reputation Centre recently conducted research into corporate activism. It found out what businesses and communications professionals should consider if this is a path they are thinking about taking.  

The research highlighted some contrasting opinions. It surveyed a mix of senior communications professionals at the world’s largest brands, MPs and journalists. While three fifths of those surveyed said the benefits of taking a stand were greater than ever, three quarters said the risks were greater than ever too.

Breaking down the audience, you get some interesting findings. While three quarters of journalists agreed it was right for companies to take a stand on social and political issues, only 50% of MPs did. While 83% of Labour MPs agreed, only 21% of Conservatives said the same.

So there’s an acknowledgment that companies have a right, or even an obligation, to speak out on some issues. But, as we can also see, while there’s potentially more to gain there may also be more to lose.

Before deciding on whether this is the right course of action, the Ipsos research suggests four key points to consider:

  • Is it credible?
  • Is it right for your customers and employees?
  • Do you have evidence to support your position?
  • And have you consulted widely before acting?  

First, is the suggested action credible for the company’s brand and its values? Speaking out on an unrelated issue can be seen as opportunistic and will ultimately damage your brand. The Heineken advert worked so well because they were not taking a stand on any particular view but saying it’s good to chat over a beer. This sits well with its product and its customers.

Second, does the stand you are taking is right for all your customers, employees, suppliers and all the markets in which you operate? This may be tricky for companies with lots of different consumer brands appealing to many different types of customers. But what’s right for one group may not be for another so the risks of getting it wrong increase.

Next, even if the stand you take is credible, relevant and right for all your customers, you still may face criticism, whether that’s from other companies, pressure groups or politicians. As such, you need to have evidence that your audience supports your stance and be prepared to argue your case.  

Last, to ensure you get it right and get the buy-in, Ipsos suggests consulting with the entire business, from the CEO down to the factory floor. This importantly helps avoid snow-blindness, where you become too involved in the project and can’t see if it’s the right thing to do or not.

While the risks of taking a stand on a controversial issue are significant, if you ask the right questions before launching into action, the benefits can be great for both the company and its reputation.

Leave a Reply