In December, I had the privilege of speaking at an ANA-Rutgers Institute for Corporate Social Innovation conference, Tapping Brand Potential for Social Good, which centered on the evolving and impactful role brands play in society. Today’s heightened scrutiny and the push for genuine, purpose-aligned actions make the brand’s role as an active citizen in societal issues more crucial than ever. Drawing upon the insights I shared at the ANA event and my client work, I’ve further explored how, in the face of societal challenges, brands can responsibly and genuinely influence meaningful change….

As the 2024 US Presidential Election unfolds, I suspect the landscape for brands may fast evolve into one where taking a stand on social and political issues is simultaneously expected and scrutinized. Brand activism, while not a new phenomenon, finds itself under a magnifying glass with stakes higher than ever before. Audiences are both more attentive and more cynical, demanding alignment with corporate policies and behaviors alongside brand purpose and core values. This calls for a nuanced approach, where the question isn’t whether or not to take a stand, but rather how to do so in a way that is sincere, impactful and true to a brand’s essence.

The Imperative of Brand Purpose

In this context of heightened scrutiny, the clarity and genuineness of a brand’s purpose can provide a blueprint for meaningful engagement and action, directly addressing people’s evolving expectations in today’s choice-saturated market. Consumers and employees crave connections that extend beyond transactions, yearning to align with brands that mirror their personal values and deliver high quality products and services while also having a net positive impact. Shifting expectations are steadily transforming the paradigm for brands, making it essential to do more than simply react to external pressures, current events and the cultural calendar…. And, instead, approach adopting a position on current issues as a strategic decision. It’s all about fostering differentiation, loyalty, and growth, underpinned by a purpose that resonates deeply with customers, employees, investors and the wider public.

Yet, embarking on this path is not without its challenges. The landscape is riddled with potential pitfalls, from accusations of virtue signaling to the financial implications of misaligned actions. From Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” in 2019 to backlash faced by brands like Bud Light and Target last year, controversies stirred underscore the range of risks involved. Despite these challenges, the rewards of a purpose-driven approach—enhanced brand loyalty, talent attraction, amplified impact, influencing behavior change and financial growth—offer compelling reasons for brands to take stands while navigating these waters carefully.

Navigating the Spectrum of Brand Activism

Guided by purpose, taking a stand is a nuanced, not binary, decision reflecting a brand’s commitment to champion change. From acting as allies to becoming full-fledged activists, the spectrum for taking a stand requires brands to consider their core reason for being, the issues they are genuinely positioned to influence, their audiences’ perspectives and their appetite for risk.

Spectrum of Brand Ally to Brand Activist

Allies in Action: Supporting Causes Without Overstepping

The role of an ally in brand leadership is pivotal—it involves offering support while ensuring alignment with the brand’s purpose and not overreaching. At one end of the spectrum, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade exemplified allyship this past Thanksgiving. Unlike the LA Dodgers which flip-flopped in its support for diverse voices and inclusivity, Macy’s stood strong in a testament to its commitment to community values.

LEGO, a brand synonymous with creativity and development, has built its purpose around inspiring children to think creatively. Through the LEGO Foundation, the company supports children’s education worldwide. This purpose naturally extends to gender equality in children, which requires a delicate balance to accommodate wide-ranging stakeholder perspectives. Yet, it’s a move that, when piloted thoughtfully, aligns with their commitment to human potential.

The Fifteen Percent Pledge demonstrates how partnership can lead to impactful change. Brands like Nordstrom, Macy’s and Sephora partner with this nonprofit to reflect the 15% of the U.S. population that is Black, dedicating an equivalent percentage of shelf space to Black-owned brands. A commitment to equity that powerfully illustrates how competing brands can be allies in action, driving industry-wide and social transformation.

Advocates Amplifying Voices: Supporting Causes Aligned with Core Operations

Advocacy takes allyship a step further using a brand’s reach to support causes that resonate deeply with its core business. KitchenAid, a brand built by women, stands for possibility in the kitchen. Advancing women in the culinary arts, it’s focused on challenging inequality. The documentary short, “A Woman’s Place,” showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival, highlighted emerging women chefs fighting gender inequality. KitchenAid’s partnership with the James Beard Foundation further amplifies this cause through educational tools and mentorship for women to build their culinary businesses.

Similarly, IKEA UK’s partnership with Shelter to train ‘Life at Home Experts’ from early 2023 addresses housing instability and supports those in precarious situations. The brand’s ‘Real Life Roomsets’ initiative reveals the reality of those living in temporary accommodations, with £1 from duvets sold donated to Shelter. Through this program IKEA reinforces its commitment to improving life at home for all.

Outdoor retailer REI has harnessed its influence to educate and mobilize its community on climate change, access to outdoor spaces, and the protection of public lands. Their advocacy has resulted in tangible policy changes, demonstrating the power of collective voice. Since 2021, more than 200,000 members of the REI community have written to elected officials urging action on climate, equity and conservation, helping secure 9 historic wins for life outside

Activists Leading the Charge: Initiating Change that Reflects Deep-Seated Brand Values

At the far end of the spectrum, brands taking up activist causes tend to take bold stances, challenging policies and advocating for a range of social issues from sustainability to human rights. Their actions, while sometimes controversial, exemplify a commitment to leading change that stretches beyond direct business operations. Here brands leverage their influence to initiate and lead change reflective of their deep-seated beliefs and values.

Ecotricity in the UK is archetypical, taking a strong stance on environmental issues, openly challenging government policies and actively developing sustainable solutions. The brand’s action go further than their green energy provision, having a significant impact on wider societal issues.

Cosmetics company Lush actively gives a voice to numerous social issues it cares about, ranging from animal rights to human rights, thereby exemplifying how brand activism can encompass a wide array of societal concerns, especially in founder-led organizations. Cognizant that behavioral change may take time, the brand often partners with grassroot non-profits and campaign groups that are centered on specific causes.

Oatly’s bold promotion of plant-based living challenges the dairy industry to disclose climate footprints, leading and provoking industry-wide accountability and transparency. This past May, the brand called Big Dairy to task with full-page ads in NYT, LA Times and WAPO, and two adjacent billboards in Times Square, Hollywood Blvd.

Guiding Principles for Purposeful Engagement

Five foundational principles will guide alignment with purpose and stakeholder expectations when taking a stand:

1. Assess Purpose Fit and Stretch. Map Your Ecosystem.

Explore your brand’s ecosystem to understand its potential influence and impact across broader stakeholder and global narratives. Identify where your purpose intersects with relevant social issues, societal needs, and environmental concerns through mapping the landscape of brand touchpoints—from supply chain intricacies to customer interactions. Mapping reveals opportunities for relevant engagement, highlighting where your brand can make a meaningful difference without straying from foundational values.

2. Segment by Ideology. Read Between the Lines.

Understand the nuanced and potentially conflicting perspectives and expectations – spoken and unspoken – of customers, employees, investors and other stakeholder to identify red flags. Conduct in-depth analyses to uncover differing ideologies, paying close attention to both overt and subtle cues in communications. Craft stances that resonate with your purpose and that are important to your most material audiences, while navigating ideological divides with sensitivity and insight.

3. Develop Purpose Architecture. Craft a Dual-Brand Dialogue.

Construct a strategic framework that delineates the distinct roles your corporate and product brands play in championing social causes informed by a refined understanding of different audience perspectives and expectations. Identify issues that are resonant on a corporate level—often those that reflect employee values, culture and operating principles—while leveraging product brands to address causes linked to their value proposition and brand persona. A dual dialogue will foster a cohesive yet flexible approach to taking stands.

4. Stand Firm with Courage. Prepare to Navigate Backlash.

Embrace a steadfast commitment to your chosen stance, bolstered by a comprehensive crisis management plan that anticipates and addresses potential backlash, underscoring resilience and dedication to brand values amidst challenges. Develop strategies that encompass a spectrum of responses, from wholehearted support to critical opposition, and commit to periodic reassessment of your stance to maintain relevance and alignment with evolving societal dynamics.

5. Unify Cross-Functionally. Ensure Your House Is in Order.

Foster a culture of collaboration and alignment across all departments, from marketing and PR to HR and operations, ensuring a unified front in your brand’s advocacy efforts. Before publicizing your stance, engage in comprehensive internal communication to secure buy-in and coherence across the organization. Cross-functional unity strengthens a brand’s position and mitigates the potential for internal discord or public flip-flopping in the face of scrutiny.

The Marketer’s Fiduciary Role

As we distill these guiding principles into practice, the fiduciary role of marketers comes sharply into focus, bridging the gap between strategic purpose and tangible action. Experience consistently has shown me that brands can have a significant influence over the way we think and behave, imbuing brand leaders with a capacity to effect change on pressing global issues, from the climate crisis to deeply rooted systemic social challenges. And I strongly believe this power uniquely positions marketers as agents for societal transformation, entrusting them to guide public discourse towards meaningful action.

Yet, simultaneously, I know it is imperative that brand leaders navigate the delicate balance between their personal convictions and fiduciary duty to uphold a brand’s values and promises…. Rather than co-opt the brands they manage with personal agendas, especially in public companies. The business risks to do otherwise are too high.

More so than ever, today’s heightened environment demands that brand leaders strategically align each decision to take a stand with purpose so that it reinforces a brand’s core identity and values while also resonating with audience expectations. This responsibility further underscores the importance of marketers supporting brands that align with their personal values and that also empower them to responsibly contribute to our evolving global narrative.

Beyond the ballot, shaping our future

As the presidential election nears, the imperative for brands to engage thoughtfully and sincerely with societal issues will likely become more pronounced. Through considering the different ways to take a stand and adhering to strategic principles, brand leaders will more readily navigate a complex socio-political landscape with integrity. Rooting engagement in purpose and being cognizant of potentially wide-ranging stakeholder perspectives will enhance brand reputation and loyalty while also contributing to a more informed, engaged, and conscientious society. With heightened expectations, the choices brands make today enhance both their narrative and society’s, underscoring the transformative power of taking a stand with purpose.