Lets look at three recent examples of companies that, intentionally or inadvertently, made news by taking a stand.
• Cadillac chose the Oscar broadcast to premier an ad addressing the fact that we are a divided nation and flipped that message to a positive one about people helping and supporting each other.
• Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank ignited a media firestorm by calling Donald Trump "A great asset to America" in an interview on CNBC. The company experienced heavy backlash from sponsored athletes and celebrities Steph Curry, Dwayne Johnson, and Misty Copeland.
• Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump's clothing line, sparking a store boycott by Trump supporters and a 1 percent dip on NASDAQ, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Entrepreneurs and CMOs can learn a variety of lessons from each of these examples.
Pick Your Battles
Do your research before taking a stand. Under Armour's CEO never considered how his words might impact the athletes representing his brand--high profile people with many fans and twitter followers. Know your customers, your board, and your top management.
It's easier, and more expected, for a brand that already has a political bent to make a political statement. What makes sense for Ben and Jerry's may not be right for Baskin Robbins. Sometimes, it pays to be Switzerland.
Be Your Own Devil's Advocate
Big brands can see the impact of brand perception on the value of their stock. It's a lot harder for smaller companies and entrepreneurs to gauge the impact a stand, or a scandal, is having on their bottom line. Before taking a position, entrepreneurs need to be prepared for both sides of the debate and have a public relations strategy in place.
Nordstrom anticipated the backlash from Trump supporters and were prepared to support their position with sales numbers. In Plank's case, it appears neither he nor his company were ready for the public outcry against his stance.
Few noticed when Neiman Marcus and Sears Holdings dropped the Ivanka Trump line. Why? Nordstrom had already grabbed all the attention. This turned out to be very good for them. While the Trump supporters boycotted Nordstrom and the stock dropped 1 percent at first, anti-Trump protesters made a point of shopping there. The company's stock then climbed to 4 percent over night, according to a report from CNN Money.
Decide in advance if courting controversy or taking a stand fits with the brand experience you want to develop. Cadillac chose to make a positive statement about unity and launched it with a high-profile media buy. Budweiser, Hyatt, and others had already aired issue-oriented spots, but Cadillac led the way for the automotive category. Once you start taking positions, they will become part of the fabric of your company perceptions.
Spread the Word
If you need to address bad press, or make a direct apology, be loud about it. Placing a few ads won't do the job. Be proactive and make your statement in multiple channels. Plank chose to address the controversy with an apology in a press release accompanied by a full-page advertorial in the Baltimore Sun. Brands are increasingly using this technique to control a negative narrative while avoiding a two-way conversation with consumers.
The controversy turned out to be beneficial for Under Armour, distracting the public from the fact that shareholders had just filed a lawsuit against the company, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Keep Influencers On Your Side
What Michael Jordan was to Nike, Steph Curry is to Under Armour. Shortly after Plank's pro-Trump comments, Curry said in a post-game interview that he would not hesitate to back out of of deals with companies that are at odds with his values. This created a media domino effect that devolved into a public feud between Plank and Curry, his most popular brand endorser.
Show Some Back Bone
Controversy has both a short- and long-term impact. If you come out in favor of an issue and then quickly backtrack, this may cause consumers to distrust your company moving forward. Don't stand behind an issue unless you can see it through.
Fear of criticism is why many businesses steer clear of controversy, and that is often a wise decision. However, controversial content can be a powerful strategy of the right brand with the right customer base. When you know who your dedicated followers are, sharing your values could create a groundswell of support.