From Positioning Brands to Brands Taking Positions

October 24, 2022

Don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company.

Some variation of that maxim has guided American family etiquette since around the mid-1800s. As we hurdle toward the latest contentious—some might say most consequential—election season of our time, it’s ever clear this rule is about as heeded as waiting 30 minutes to swim after eating. For better or worse, Americans are demanding to know where people stand on issues, whether at the dinner table or, increasingly, at the boardroom table.

And it’s not just religion and politics anymore—it’s all social issues, which can have a dramatic effect on a company’s bottom line if handled poorly.

Consider Nike’s endorsement of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kap determined to kneel during the national anthem, becoming a symbol for anti-racism. This statement, among other external factors, got him blackballed from the league. Nike had a choice—stand with Kap or drop him? Knowing its customer base, Nike made its calculation and elevated Kaepernick’s voice rather than drop him as a spokesperson, despite vocal opposition calling for boycotts.

Wherever you fall on the issue of standing or kneeling, for Nike the decision was genuine, authentic to itself, and proven right by the bottom line. Effective corporate communications helped Nike increase its quarterly market capital 10%, from $770 million to $847 million. Nike led a masterclass in uplifting communications to drive dollars—and serious brands have taken note.

This is the new normal for communications teams all over the country. As trust in our political leaders declines precipitously to historic low levels, companies and brands alike are being asked to fill that leadership void. And the good news is that we can prepare.

Whether policymakers, media, or customers are knocking down your doors, you can be ready to respond in a way that both leads the conversation or national dialogue as well as embracing your constituents—your customers—and ultimately increase your return for shareholders.

For brands interested in making this leap to leadership, there are a few rules to keep in mind.

First, ensure every stakeholder is aligned on the position and the message. Research and insights are a must-have for brands taking any position, particularly social positions. Lean on data to understand where customers are and meet them there. By defining your purpose as a brand, the opportunity to become a leader in the sector will come upon you naturally and be received popularly.

Second, know the risks. Is it right to take a position on a particular issue? Does it make sense for your brand? Will it resonate with your audience, customers, and stakeholders? More and more brands are going to have to be part of the social conversations going forward—at least internally. Either way, corporate communications executives need to prepare by having the initial discussion.

Third, be genuine, authentic, and consistent. Establish a framework for engaging on social issues. Whether it’s your employee vaccination policy during a pandemic or the repeal of Roe v. Wade, develop a process that guides when to speak and when to remain silent on issues. Research and data can help refine the most opportune moments and ensure that the outcomes are consistent with core company values.

Most importantly, it’s up to each brand or organization to decide whether to be part of these conversations. In some cases, what’s genuine or authentic to your brand might be staying out of the fray altogether. And that’s okay, too. A decade ago, the norm was for brands to remain quiet. Today, in most cases, consumers want more from brands they give money to or invest in. There is very little neutral ground.

And that has made the Thanksgiving dinner table harder and harder on American families the past couple years. It’s also made the boardroom table more exciting, allowing companies to become true leaders and fixtures—even compasses—in the lives of consumers, customers, and voters nationwide.