Personal values always play a part in how we view and interact with the world.
Lately, though, they're increasingly front and center in consumer purchasing decisions. From burning New Balance sneakers and posting photos of the smoking footwear on Instagram to boycotting Cheetos over deforestation or Target over bathrooms, individual values are driving more than just the purchasing decisions for one's own family. And values-based purchasing is made more potent by social media, with businesses both celebrated and penalized in the process.
Although conventional wisdom suggests that entrepreneurs should be like Switzerland--neutral no matter what--that's not actually necessary or even desirable. In fact, staying true to your principles as a business can be a very good thing, especially if you're judicious and intelligent about it.
Here are 6 things to consider:
1. Understand the risks.
Taking a stand on an issue is not without its perils. When a business steps up, it can feel binary, a black-and-white, either/or framework of stark contrasts. No matter how nuanced you try to be, taking a stand based on your values can be perceived by consumers as, "You're either with us or against us" or sometimes even, "If you're for them, you're against me." That may not be the case (although it sometimes is). Understand that principles are rarely divorced from cost--that's why sticking to them has the potential to hurt. For example, when Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy decided to weigh in on the national gay marriage debate, he soon found his company the subject of consumer boycotts and mayors declaring Chick-fil-A could not open new franchises in their cities unless their policies changed. Articulating your principles may cause you to lose customers who disagree with them, which can have a material impact on your business, from impeding your ability to maintain or expand your employee base to meeting your numbers to straining your relationship with your board.
2. It may not actually matter much to your customer base.
Yes, the risk of taking a stand is you might lose customers, or worse. But that loss may not be as bad as you might think. Many customers, if they like your product, won't care either way. If you have a highly desirable product, that alone can inoculate you against the worst losses. Apple would have to be pretty far out on a limb for consumers to boycott the newest iteration of the iPhone. Similarly, when Kellogg's decided to stop advertising on the alt-right opinion site, Breitbart, in response to articles it deemed controversial, the site called for a nationwide boycott of the brand, promoting it heavily on social media. Luckily for Kellogg's, the boycott had no meaningful impact on the company's stock. Seems people's preference for their favorite breakfast cereal trumped their concerns over who advertised on the site.
3. You'll be pleasantly surprised by some customers' responses.
More importantly, remember that in taking a stand on an issue, you may actually gain the loyalty of customers who align with the stance you're taking, and even pick up new customers who choose you precisely for that reason. In a competitive marketplace, your values can actually be an advantage. Companies like Warby Parker and TOMS Shoes have developed devoted customer bases by promising to devote a portion of each purchase to helping the less fortunate. Whole Foods has built a massive brand selling customers organic, ethically produced foods, and in doing so, has carved out a premium position in the otherwise undifferentiated grocery store market.
4. Make sure your line in the sand makes sense.
There are myriad issues that might ignite our personal and professional passions. It's essential to decide how you'll weigh them to choose which ones merit a formal position at the business level. My company, Trip.com, encountered this when Indiana and then North Carolina passed laws that could allow businesses to legally discriminate against people for their gender identity or sexual orientation. We chose to respond by posting travel advisories for all the relevant cities in these states on our site so that travelers would be informed of the potential risks.
What made us step up in this instance and on other issues we may care about? It aligned with our core mission as a company. Trip.com's mission is to help you feel like an insider when you travel, to be armed with the most timely, relevant and personalized travel recommendations. Those laws could have been used to turn away LGBT guests who planned to stay at any number of hotels in Charlotte, a humiliating, degrading or potentially even dangerous prospect. Our mission gives us a responsibility to help our LGBT tribe (a community on our app with nearly 60K members) travel safely, same as any other group of travelers we serve. Furthermore, this was an issue that could directly impact our own LGBT employees. When a stance aligns organically with your company's core mission, it will make more sense to your customers as well. This is why we received positive customer feedback when we took action.
5. Acknowledge your company's values.
In that particular example, we also could have just written an extremely straightforward, factual advisory merely articulating the law and what it might mean for LGBT travelers. We chose to include the following as well: "Trip.com is a company that supports equal rights for all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity." Philosophically, our team and business believes that travel is very much about discovering new cultures, meeting people who are different from you, and learning about yourself and them through these interactions, growing in the process. Discrimination in all its forms is antithetical to what we believe. In this case, we felt including some language on our values helped underscore why we felt it made sense to take a stand, and how seriously we took the laws and their impact on our users.
6. Stepping up has a ripple effect.
When we put the advisory in place, we talked internally about what it would mean. After all, discrimination against LGBT people isn't unique. There are other countries that have similar issues, and many where the situation for LGBT travelers is far more dire than in Indiana or North Carolina. We're also cognizant that there are other kinds of travelers--solo female travelers, for instance--that may encounter discrimination or other issues based solely on some fundamental aspect of who they are. If we really wanted to build a company based on a set of principles, this single act felt insufficient. We're working on some features that will help move this along but as a start-up, it does take time to identify more scalable ways to address these issues (particularly at the same time you're plugging away at the technical development that keeps you competitive).
Principles aren't at odds with turning a profit--but incorporating them does require thoughtful strategy and preparation for various contingencies.