When Starbucks recently announced it would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide, it did more than protest a presidential decision; it raised the stakes for all retailers.
Not for them to hire people fleeing war-ravaged territories, but to determine and recognize their responsibilities to all stakeholders. For some retailers that responsibility may still be limited to making a profit, but increasingly this bottom-line focus is no longer an option.
From gay marriage to immigration rights, some emerging social and political issues are just too culturally significant for retailers to ignore. Social media may have a large hand in the reasoning for it; it provides a powerful soapbox on which consumers can collectively push for change.
The risk is that once a merchant takes a stand on a high-profile issue, it sets a precedent that may cause consumers to expect a similar response to future events. On a practical level, a retailer has to address the ramifications of its decision to advocate.
“If such a retailer was my client, my first question would be, ‘Do you know the political leaning of your customers, employees and vendors, and if any would be offended by your coming out with this position?’” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Pasadena, California, and author of the book “Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management.”
Retailers Who Advocate
In many cases there’s no avoiding offending someone, so it’s a matter of choosing the greater good for the brand. Here’s a sampling of how some merchants handle advocacy.
Starbucks on Jan. 29 said it would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide after President Trump announced plans to prevent asylum seekers from seven largely Muslim countries from entering the United States. Trump supporters quickly called for a boycott, stating that Starbucks should focus on hiring Americans. In response, Starbucks stated, in part: “We make decisions based on our mission, values and heritage and we recognize that sometimes there are some who may disagree with us. We respect the diverse points of views held by our partners and customers and will continue to listen.”
Macy’s stopped carrying Donald Trump-brand clothing in 2015 after the then-presidential candidate called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. Macy’s held its ground after Trump was elected, but pinned its reasoning on politics. “We wouldn’t have a Hillary Clinton suit line either,” CEO Terry Lundgren said. Trump supporters boycotted and took credit when Macy’s recently announced it would close 68 stores, though the fact that several other retailers also are shuttering locations indicates broader economic issues are at play.
Target raised ire — and praise — when said it would allow transgender customers to use whichever bathrooms corresponded with their gender identity. The policy followed legislation in North Carolina that required transgender people to use the public bathrooms that matched their birth gender. When some of its customers protested, Target did not back down. Rather, it announced in August 2016 it would install private bathrooms in all of its stores.
Kellogg Co., though not a retailer, acts in many ways like one and has a similar brand identity. So when the maker of Froot Loops and Pop-Tarts said it would pull advertising from Breitbart News, it risked a customer blowback. Kellogg stated the right-wing website did not align with its values. Breitbart responded by calling for a boycott and also ran controversial stories about the brand. Consumers have rallied on both sides, but it’s too soon to tell if the move has caused sugary (or non-sugary) cereal consumers to convert.
When to Make a Stand
These cases reflect situations when brands either proactively chose to make a strong value statement or were forced into doing so. In either case, retailers need to consider several factors, such as how their vendors, not to mention their various other shareholders, will react. Following are three key considerations:
Can you take a snub? On highly debated issues, remember that boycotts can last longer than support rallies. Case in point: Chick-fil-A’s stance against gay marriage, as detailed in an article published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Those who aligned with Chick-fil-A sponsored a day of support, but those who opposed it boycotted the chain for days, weeks and possibly for good. As the Stanford story, by Ian Chipman, put it: “If you’re inclined to have a queasy feeling about the brand, it’s permanently etched in your mind, whereas the positive vibes just don’t stick around as much.”
How do your employees feel about it? It’s natural for a retailer to worry how its customers might react to a social or political stand. However, it should consider its front-line employees first, because they will be the face on the decision. Any advocacy should serve to reinforce the staff’s faith in the brand, not undermine it. This means choosing a cause that is in sync with the company culture and clearly communicating the reasoning behind it. As Bernstein explained: “One of the higher risks is employees publicly speaking out against their employer if they disagree with them, either for the record or anonymously.”
Small gestures can backfire: True, social justice-minded consumers likely prefer brands that share their values, even in a pinch. However, using this as an opportunity to jockey for market share can be hazardous, said Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5W Public Relations in New York. He referred to Uber’s effort to pick up travelers at John F. Kennedy International Airport when taxi drivers protested President Trump’s immigration ban. Uber’s message might have been “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home,” Torossian said, but it backfired. “Its core customers, most of whom weren’t even at the airport, sympathized more with the protest than Uber’s gesture. It’s OK to piss off a whole bunch of people; just don’t piss off your core customer.”
In short, weigh the circumstances and know your audience. Do they identify with the personality of your brand, for example, or the functionality of your product? People are at the center of all these decisions — that is a fact that cannot be ignored.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.