We are living in a divisive time. Economic, political, and racial divides are widening, and faith in the global establishment is collapsing. In the midst of that upheaval, people are increasingly looking to other institutions, like businesses, to take a stand on the cultural and political flashpoints that have divided our nation.
There are three fundamental reasons why brands have started, and should continue, to speak out. First, consumers are demanding it. Edelman's 2017 Earned Brand report found that 50 percent of consumers are belief driven, meaning they choose, switch, or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. That same study found that 64 percent of belief-driven consumers will not buy a brand because it stayed silent on an issue it had an obligation to address.
Second, employees are asking and expecting more of their employers. "Redefining the C-Suite: Business the Millennial Way," a recent report by American Express, found that 81 percent of U.S. Millennials said a successful business needs to have a genuine purpose, and 68 percent want to make a positive difference in the world. Employees are starting to hold their employers accountable; the recent Google employee walkout in response to the company's reported practices regarding sexual harassment policies is a prime example.
Finally, for capitalism to succeed it has to be seen to be contributing to the betterment of society, not just to the bottom line. Or in the words of Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, "To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society."
So, the question becomes how and when should a brand take a stand? We believe it comes down to knowing who you are and living what you stand for. This is often referred to as a purpose. At co: we call it a Quest--a higher order ambition that propels the company beyond commercial gain, defining the impact the business wants to make on the world and the North Star that company has to live up to every day.
A Quest provides the clarity and focus needed to make decisions, ultimately determining when and how a brand should act. Taking a stand can take many forms, from a rapid response to a broader commentary on an issue and even corporate activism. The question a brand needs to ask itself is: If it did not take a stand, what would the response be from its employees and customers? A Quest creates a standard expectation people have for a brand, and if their communities believed they had an obligation to act, and they did not, the backlash could be catastrophic.
Airbnb's Quest is, "To make people around the world feel like they can 'belong anywhere.' " They have shown that this is more than just a mission statement by acting on it; it's not just something they say, it's something they do. In January 2017, the United States instituted a travel ban on people from certain majority Muslim countries. In response, Airbnb offered free accommodations to those who were impacted and invited the community to join it on that mission. While it's not clear how its response impacted Airbnb's business, in some cases it's very evident. Let's take a look at Lyft and Nike.
During the same travel ban, NYC taxi workers protested the ban by striking at JFK Airport. Uber continued to service the airport and was perceived to be taking advantage of the situation. Lyft's Quest centers on "reconnecting people and communities." It showed solidarity with the strikers and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to support immigrants and refugees. In the aftermath, Lyft surged and was downloaded more than Uber for the first time.
Sometimes the results of taking a stand are not immediately realized. It takes nerve to stand for your beliefs. When Nike launched its Colin Kaepernick "Just Do It" campaign, its stock plummeted. The 49ers quarterback became an activist when he supported the Black Lives Matter movement by kneeling during the national anthem, dividing a nation. But Nike sensed its community would respond and express their support for taking a stand with Kaepernick. In the ensuing days, Nike's stock saw significant gains as reports of record sales were published.
However, Nike is not immune to accusations of capitalizing on societal issues for its own profit. To combat this risk, Nike, and brands taking a stand more broadly, need to do more to directly address (and solve) the issues that they are taking a stand against.
In a world where taking a stand is not just nice to have but a necessity, knowing what to take a stand on and how starts with a Quest--one that your employees want to join you on, your customers want to back you on, and your business not just believes in, but acts on.