For years, the owners of Cox Farms, a family-owned business outside of Centreville, Virginia, have enjoyed posting witty and informative messages on the small sign board next to the road running by their property. But recently, they decided to post something a bit more provocative: a message that reads simply, "Resist White Supremacy." In the few days since the sign went up, the farm's Facebook post defending it has gone viral, with more than 10,000 shares and 30,000 reactions ranging from supportive to outraged.
In a time that can charitably be described as partisan, most businesses avoid getting even mildly political, afraid of backlash and alienating customers. Some companies have strengthened their brands by taking a stand, but that's territory that's fraught with danger. Most leaders play it safe on the presumption that business and politics never mix well.
I could not disagree more.
Cox Farms embodies a piece of next-level branding wisdom that many leaders overlook but all should take to heart: Customers love businesses that stand for something and act on their values. Stereotypically faceless, Orwellian corporations might have been the norm back when our cars all came from Detroit and our computers from IBM, but those days are gone.
Today's consumers have choices; lots of them. Standing up for and being identified with a cause that means something to you and your people is a terrific way to set your business apart from the throng of competitors busy walking on eggshells and trying not to offend anybody.
But there's an even better reason to speak out: Consumers support business that reflect their values. According to a 2017 study by Cone Communications, 87 percent of consumers said they would purchase a product because the company selling it advocated for an issue important to them. Conversely, 76 percent said they'd boycott a company that supported an issue they were opposed to.
The lesson? Staying neutral, standing in the middle of the road, and supporting nothing might be a great way to stay out of trouble, but it's also a great way to stay anonymous. Building a great brand means evoking a strong reaction; indifference means you've blown the game in the bottom of the ninth. True, if you lead with values that seem political and controversial, you might turn off potential customers. But the ones who align with your values will develop an affinity for your brand that most leaders can only dream about. They'll become your defenders, your loyalists, and your evangelists.
You also get to operate a company that you can be proud of, and that's worth something. That pride comes through loud and clear in Cox Farms' Facebook post:
We sincerely believe that fighting injustice and white supremacy is a responsibility that can--and should--unite us all. We struggle to see how anyone other than self-identified white supremacists would take this as a personal attack.
We're not seeking to alienate folks who have different perspectives on tax reform or infrastructure spending. But when it comes to speaking out against systems of oppression and injustice, we see it as our moral responsibility to use our position of privilege and power, along with the tools of our trade and the platforms available to us, to engage visibly and actively in the fight for justice. Our roadside sign messages are one small way we do this.
So, how do you take a stand constructively but not recklessly?
Don't fish around for an issue you think will push your customers' buttons. They'll smell the manipulation and resent it. Back a cause you and your people care about personally.
Don't issue a press release.
Values aren't marketing and PR tools; they're who you are. Don't cheapen them by shouting, "Hey, look what we stand for!" Donate, march, or do something for the cause that speaks for itself. People will figure it out.
Even though some of the reactions to Cox Farm's anti-white supremacist message were on the order of, "You're racists!" and "You're dividing the country!" there was nothing political about the sign. Opposing racist hate should be something all reasonable people can get behind. Make a strong, clear statement without political undertones and let it stand for itself.
Prepare to catch hell.
Because you will. If you don't, you're doing it wrong. Remember, haters gonna hate. If you're real and standing for something good, you'll earn more fans than enemies.