When you think of your favorite brand, what do you see?
If it’s Nike, maybe you think of Jordans, your workout gear, or “Just Do It.” And if you can’t live without Chic-Fil-A, perhaps you see those delicious chicken nuggets or sweet tea.
But for both brands, you may also see their takes on controversial social issues.
Perhaps you applaud Nike for using Colin Kaepernick in their television spots to highlight African-American achievement. Or maybe you celebrate Chick-fil-As’ CEO Dan Cathy’s comments opposing same-sex marriage.
Either way, successful brands know that taking a stance on social issues can be an opportunity to form a bond with consumers based on shared values. On the other hand, weighing in on topics that crisscross race and politics can alienate potential or existing customers.
When it comes to businesses choosing whether or not to weigh in, there are some options to consider.
Will This Help or Hurt the Brand?
Businesses may decide to take a stand on political or social issues for any number of reasons.
Maybe founders or shareholders share a unified view on social issues. Perhaps the brand is aiming for a target age group or demographic.
Ultimately, financial interests either inform those decisions or must be considered when choosing to speak out.
A few questions brands should ask themselves before taking a side include:
- Will taking a stance help or hurt sales?
- Will our messaging appeal to our target audience?
- Will our brand joining the conversation help or hurt?
- Is our brand social enough that speaking out is necessary?
That last question is a crucial one for businesses to weigh.
Often, the businesses that join the conversation on social issues are those with a strong personal connection to their customers. Brands like Nike, for instance, have long been the public face of national sports leagues and have a multi-generational appeal to youth.
Because of this connection, Nike taking a stance is not only common but also expected from consumers. But even for Nike, the road to finding the perfect messaging can be difficult.
Taking a Stand Could Help Sales
Recently, Nike’s inclusion of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a late 2018 ad campaign sparked outrage from conservative viewers.
At issue was Kaepernick’s much-publicized refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem at games, drawing the ire of viewers as well as President Donald Trump.
But, perhaps surprisingly for Nike’s detractors, online sales jumped 31 percent over Labor Day 2018 compared to the year before. Outside analysts said the controversial ad might have increased sales rather than hurting them.
The lesson other companies can take from Nike’s decision is that controversy can help sales and boost a brand’s visibility. However, Nike, unlike some of its competitors, has a history of courting controversy with its ad campaigns. If a less-visible company took a similar stand, it’s hard to know what the consequences would be.
Tread Carefully Near Social Issues
Unlike Nike, other brands like Pepsi, which aired a controversial ad starring Kendall Jenner in early 2017, were less successful.
That ad, which involved Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer at an urban rally, was so despised by millennial consumers that it led to abysmal third-quarter sales that marked an eight-year low.
At issue in Pepsi’s ad was a perceived “tone-deafness” that could have been addressed through more rigorous focus testing. Unlike Nike, who correctly read and appealed to the interests of its target market, Pepsi later had to retract its ad from the internet and television.
For businesses looking to test the waters on political controversies, Pepsi can provide a few warnings moving forward.
If a business seeks to join national debates on race or politics, its messaging should be heavily reviewed and tested to ensure the brand is conveying what it’s attempting to say.
It’s not enough for a brand to create an ad trying to bridge the gap. Brands have to take their advertising to the target audience and seek feedback. If companies don’t invest enough time and effort to find the perfect message, the results could hit their bottom line.
The Power of Millennial Consumers
Brands in recent years have become more willing to branch out into controversial topics, and the millennial generation may be the driving force behind this.
Digital Marketers and Advertisers have found that U.S. millennials, who have little trust in government or institutions, are looking to brands for leadership on social issues. Unlike previous generations, a company’s public stance on controversial aspects of the day has a much more significant effect on millennial consumer choice than before.
In the case of Gillette, whose late 2018 ad campaign targeting “toxic masculinity led to videos of people throwing their razors in the trash, the controversy could be both a positive and negative.
As Gillette competes with a new business model for men’s razors embodied by companies like Shave Club for Men, embracing controversy could draw more eyeballs to the brand.
Should I Take a Stance or Not?
With all of the examples above considered, what can businesses take from other brands’ experience in controversial messaging?
In general, brands are competing for the attention of millennial consumers who value political and social stances from companies. Because millennials are more likely to bond with brands that take a position, it may seem obvious to speak out.
But brands should always consider the financial implications of that decision.
Taking on controversial subjects can help drive more brand loyalty, but it could also alienate consumers who may still purchase your product. When done thoughtfully, a controversial ad can help your target audience grow even closer to your brand.
Ultimately, a brand’s decision to take a stand should be informed by the company’s values. A brands messaging should keep sales figures in mind, but a cynical effort to draw attention can meet severe backlash from consumers.
With a little caution, taking on controversy can be a stepping stone for a brand toward more loyalty and sales.