According to the Duke University Fuqua School of Business twice-annual CMO Survey, more than a quarter of top marketers now believe it’s appropriate for their brands to take positions on political issues.

That’s up significantly from February 2018, when the CMO Survey began asking respondents about this subject. At that time, just over 17% expressed such a belief.

According to Christine Moorman, a Fuqua School of Business professor and the director of the CMO Survey, “This openness likely reflects the fact that marketers realize their customers want the companies they support to be good citizens of the world — making profits is just part of that.”

Indeed, numerous studies have found that many consumers, especially younger consumers, are very interested in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and willing to incorporate this into their purchasing decisions.

Brands’ growing CSR efforts make sense in light of these studies, but “doing the right thing” can be a tricky matter given that today it’s often difficult to separate social issues from political issues. In many cases, social issues have become political issues, and political issues are often seen as being social issues.

Are marketers too comfortable taking political stands?

Brands that wade into politics and charged social issues commonly find themselves caught in controversy in the polarizing environments that exist in many parts of the world. Some campaigns even lead to full-on backlashes and calls for boycotts. Both the short and long-term effects of these backlashes and boycotts are often difficult to quantify.

There is some evidence that backlashes and boycotts don’t lead to harmful consequences, at least as far as sales and profit are concerned, and Fuqua School of Business’ Moorman says, “Although recent examples with Nike and Colin Kaepernick point to some backlash, overall, getting involved in social debates — if done authentically and if connected to the business that the company is in — appears to be well-received in the marketplace.”

The challenge for brands is that nobody really knows how their involvement in social and political issues will pan out. What does seem apparent is that the calculus for getting involved in them is getting more and more complex as the responses of stakeholders and interest groups become more fierce, so brands will have to be especially thoughtful in navigating the current super-political environment.

Case in point: in June, online retailer Wayfair found itself facing an internal backlash after a large group of employees objected to a $200,000 sale to a US government contractor. The reason for the backlash: at least some of the the furniture the contractor wanted to purchase was for an immigration detention center.

The co-founder and CTO of the company, Steve Conine, convened a staff meeting at which he rejected employees’ demands that the order be canceled. He told employees that he was “very much against these detention centers” but also said he felt Wayfair had a “duty not to be a discriminatory business”.

In protest of the company’s decision, Wayfair employees staged a walkout.

Wayfair isn’t the only company to be put in a tough spot like this. Indeed, a growing number of brands are facing pressure from stakeholders and the public at large to take actions that go as far as stopping sales of legal products or refusing to do business with specific customers. Some, such as Bank of America, are doing just that.

This is the backdrop against which marketers appear to be increasingly comfortable with their brands taking political positions. Given the risks, which include marketers taking matters into their own hands and operating outside of company protocols, this is a potentially dangerous combination and therefore it behooves brands to make sure that they aren’t caught off-guard.

Steps brands might want to take include:

Set clear policies for CSR and how it relates to marketing CSR is not just about marketing

Brands should provide guidance, and where appropriate create formal protocols, so that marketing teams don’t create initiatives and execute campaigns that have unintended CSR implications.

At a minimum, marketers should have enough information to understand where the boundaries are visà-vis efforts that relate to social and political issues.

Make decisions at the top, but solicit feedback from below

For obvious reasons, it makes sense that company management sign off on CSR initiatives and campaigns, especially those that touch on hot-button social and political issues. Given the stakes, it is simply not advisable for rank-and-file marketing staff to be creating and executing campaigns that take social and political stances without approval from management.

At the same time, the Wayfair situation demonstrates the wisdom of soliciting feedback from employees and taking their opinions and concerns into consideration when deciding whether or not to take a stand on a particular issue.

When taking a stand, be prepared to stand on principle

If a brand it going to take a stand, it should be willing and capable of defending its position on principle. Far too often, brands get caught trying to walk too fine a line and please everyone when doing so is impossible. On many social and political topics today, it is virtually impossible to take a meaningful stand without upsetting some group of people, so after deciding to weigh in on such topics, brands should be prepared to state their guiding principles and stick to them.

For instance, when Dick’s Sporting Goods decided to stop selling assault-style weapons, it came under fire from gun right’s groups and gun owners who disagreed with the company’s decision. But Dick’s CEO Ed Stack stood firm, stating “It’s important that when you know there’s something that’s not working, and it’s to the detriment of the public, you have to stand up.”

While it remains to be seen whether the decision was good or bad business financially – both sides of the debate are engaged in spin as can be seen here and here – Dick’s is a good example of a company willing to put its principles above profit and accept the consequences whatever they may be.

Be careful about actions that could be considered “discriminatory” or “exclusionary”

Consumers see right through token CSR efforts today. If brands want to be seen as taking a meaningful stand on important issues, they have to take meaningful action. As mentioned, sometimes consumers demand action that directly impacts a company’s ability to sell products or to certain customers.

Such actions are sometimes viable. For instance, if companies learn that their products are being manufactured in an unethical fashion or widely being used for an unintended and harmful purpose, they might very well want to make big changes.

At the same time, brands should always be thoughtful when contemplating actions that could make them vulnerable to claims they are discriminating against or excluding certain groups of people.

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