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Marketing and Comms
When to Speak, When to Listen:
A Brand Guide to Navigating a Divided Society

Another strong thread throughout SB’23 San Diego addressed the tightrope that brands must often walk when working to stay true to their values — and not letting ‘purpose fragility’ rule in our politically polarized world.

Corporate political responsibility in an environment of distrust

L-R: Elizabeth Doty, Sandy Skees, Maureen Kline, Hugh Welsh and Reuven Carlyle

In an era of increasing political polarization, what are the risks and benefits for brands of taking a stand on political issues? Kicking off a week full of rich discussions on the theme from a variety of angles, this Monday morning workshop brought together leading sustainability communicators and practitioners to discuss this timely and often fraught topic.

Panel members included Sandy Skees, Global Leader for Purpose and Impact at Porter Novelli; Reuven Carlyle, founder of Earth Finance, Elizabeth Doty and Terry Nelidov from the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute; Hugh Welsh, President & General Counsel at DSM Firmenich North America; and Maureen Kline, VP of Public Affairs and Sustainability at Pirelli Tire North America.

The group discussed the current environment of corporate conflict and distrust that makes collaboration hard as well as risky due to antitrust concerns. The group also led workshop activities with attendees on the topic, and discussed ways to leverage the Erb Principles for Corporate Political Engagement to help companies navigate if and when to engage on political and civic issues with integrity and authenticity.

The Erb Principles, it was explained, were "designed to be boring" and non-partisan; and include guidelines on issues such as legitimacy, responsibility, accountability and transparency. The idea of a "third side" to an issue was presented as a way to overcome polarization; and participants were encouraged by Doty to really think about the interests and concerns of the other side and to look at a problem creatively to see if non-polarizing solutions and perspectives might exist on an issue.

Principles, Doty explained, are "a place to stand" in the era of pushback and boycotts and a way to speak confidently; though the group admitted that the risk of backlash was real and needed to be considered carefully, even on relatively simple initiatives such as "get out the vote” activities within a company — which the audience workshopped and shared their feedback on.

Look ahead and be prepared: The public expects brands to be vocal on political issues

Image credit: Cottonbro Studio

Over lunch on Tuesday, the "To Act or Not to Act?" discussion dove into consumer attitudes towards social responsibility and political action by brands. Sandy Skees kicked off proceedings by sharing the latest results from Porter Novelli’s 2023 Purpose Priorities Report — which asked 7,000 citizens (“I don’t like using the word consumers, as I don’t necessarily identify as a consumer,” she says) what they want to see from brands when it comes to being vocal on social and political issues. The research could not be clearer: Consumers want action, not words. Around 70 percent of people surveyed think companies should talk about environmental and social issues on a regular and consistent basis throughout the year.

“Not surprisingly, Gen Z demands this more than older groups,” Skees said. “Yes, people want bands to pursue diversity, for example. But they also want brands to be more specific; they want the leadership of a company to look just the community in which they sit.”

Consumers, by and large, want brands to speak up. In fact, 41 percent of people want brands to talk about politics, specifically — up two percentage points from last year (39 percent): “These are your young customers, employees and investors. As we head into an election year in 2024, brands must be advocates for the important issues that affect our lives.”

Skees also warned that the public will react should brands fail to heed the advice: “They will stop purchasing from you. But they will increase those sales if you are aligned to their values. Your Net Promoter Score will rise if you’ve successfully articulated your position on issues people understand and care about.”

In this context, it was then left to the panel to suggest appropriate approaches and strategies. What happens when a major social issue presents itself? What should brands do? In a world of extreme outrage, how should they react?

For Roma McCaig, Vice Chair of SB’s Advisory Board, it all starts with your brand purpose. “Brands must be true to their purpose; it provides the guiding light — whether you’re a B Corp; a public firm or a private, family-run enterprise. How you address social issues should be aligned with what you stand for as a business.”

Aman Singh, Director of Global Communications – Sustainability at Walmart, agreed — admitting that the retailer is still grappling with this very subject: “You start with what your customer wants. On issues such as climate change, it is clear: You have to act. But then there are other issues that not everyone agrees on. It does come down to your values and your purpose.”

Skees offered a stark reminder to the crowd of delegates: “Stakeholders expect you to say something. Not participating is participating. Not saying something is saying something. Your stakeholders hear your silence.”

She suggested that brands create a social-engagement strategy to understand their thresholds, develop strategies and be prepared.

“On issues that are adjacent to your business and resonate with some of your stakeholders, you must show up as an ally,” she asserted. “On the more salient issues, it’s time to advocate and speak out. The aim is to create change.

“And then there’s being an activist brand, which is a risky place to be,” she added — pointing to the likes of outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, which has taken tough stances in defense of the natural environment.

According to Gina Lindblad — SVP of Reputation Management at Porter Novelli — ultimately, it’s about being prepared, rather than reactive: “You need to build the infrastructure internally so that you can react. Being reactive can come across as performative and panicky.”

McCaig agreed: “You need to constantly see around corners and prepare for what could happen. It’s important to have a process in place in your organization that allows you to identify, analyze, assess and decide how to respond before it’s in front of you.”

The conversation continued by exploring how brands might behave during the upcoming election period, particularly when it comes to ensuring people have access to voting.

“The common starting point is to give access to all employees,” McCaig said. “It’s not about telling your people how to vote but ensuring they have the means to vote. That might be given them time off to vote or volunteer at polling stations.”

Skees added that language is crucial: “It’s less about giving the ‘right to vote’ and more about supporting individuals to participate in civil society. That feels like a less charged way of framing it.”

As the floor opened up for questions, McCaig received a ripple of applause for saying, “You don’t need to be a large business to participate in change. Regardless of your size, you have a right to be vocal and push things forward and drive progress. Even if you’re small, you can get a seat at the table.”

‘Purpose fragility:’ Having real, honest and productive conversations in challenging times

Image credit: Werner Pfennig

As companies scramble to address the full scope of work involved in achieving sustainability and regeneration, our purpose-driven community is relentlessly faced with uncomfortable situations, conversations and controversies; and all too often, we end up focusing on alleviating symptoms rather than root causes. However, there are productive ways to have difficult conversations.

In a lively and thought-provoking Tuesday afternoon breakout session, four female sustainability leaders jumped into a candid and wide-ranging discussion about “purpose fragility.” Brand and marketing strategist Touseef Mirza facilitated the conversation and posited that, due to a fear of backlash, many purpose practitioners tend to avoid ‘ruffling feathers’ rather than presenting respectful, differing views. She asserted that we tend to shy away from challenges and missteps that could serve as learning for other brands, and underscored that it becomes essential for this community of practitioners to be able to face difficult conversations.

In contextualizing “purpose fragility,” Henoscene founder Asher Jay sees it as sharing “how I am as a human being;” while Lola Bakare — CMO Advisor & Inclusive Marketing Strategist at be/co and author of Responsible Marketing — likened it to being “bred to be resilient and comfortable with confrontation as evidence of love and growth.” Freya Williams, author of Green Giants and Fractional Chief Strategy Officer at Revolt North America, maintains that “purpose fragility” is about contrarianism — notably outside prevalent thinking.

Bakare asserted that “we need to understand fragility — otherwise, we are keeping the status quo and not protecting people from ongoing moral injury.” Jay stated that purpose currently lacks flexibility; but “we need to find a way to be elastic, so we can convey different perspectives” — adding that we need to lean into our discomfort in order to learn and share respectfully with others. Williams emphasized that “our job is to build confidence and exercise in belief” because we have seen how conversation and debate can extinguish purpose by allowing short-term capital gains to remain the norm versus the longer-term pursuit of principles, equity and sustainability.

In terms of voicing personal opinions, Bakare said that it’s about personal experimentation and finding a space or issue that you feel comfortable with — without “tearing down” other individuals, groups or organizations. She added that when challenging someone’s views, “you are showing them respect by being passionate about what you care about.” Williams advised to focus on the change you seek and take yourself out of it, sharing her resonant mantra: “I work for change — not companies.” For Jay, she focuses on discussing failings and what we can learn from each other to realize our own potential.

Mirza underscored that purpose practitioners have a lot of pressure while constantly in experimentation mode. Williams acknowledged that it is “tough to be out there as purpose practitioners who are trying to build a new system of capitalism and to keep beliefs alive.” Practitioners are often in a purpose-persuasion mode, constantly trying to counter any mistakes — all the more reason to be open to honest conversations.

Bakare pointed out that there is a higher bar for mistakes related to social good: “Why is there less grace to help put social good into the world? Why is the burden of proof higher for purpose?”

The panel offered things to keep in mind when taking a stand or having an uncomfortable conversation:

  • Believe in your own power. Develop and self-identify your personal changemaker archetype that authentically leans into your own theory of change (e.g., “optimistic unifier”). Be clearer with each other as to your own style and role.

  • Understand where someone is coming from and find a way to coexist. Think about wanting to be in conversation and bringing people along, rather than being right. It is important to engage in nonjudgmental conversation.

  • Make room for the dialogue to be more elastic to ensure an inclusive environment. Pose questions.

  • Reframe the conversation and come up with different, nuanced language.

  • At the onset, bring in those individuals who can make you feel uncomfortable to fully consider a wider lens of social impact.

  • Be accountable, rather than relying on external validation.

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