June 4, 2021
| Stephanie Ostermann
Should Your Brand Take a Stand on Social Issues?
What’s your company’s stance on #BlackLivesMatter? What about climate change? Do you acknowledge that the land we live, work, play and farm on was stolen from Indigenous people? Do you make your logo a rainbow for Pride Month?
More importantly, what is your company doing to positively affect change for BIPOC? What steps have you taken to mitigate your impact on carbon emissions? Are you working with local Indigenous communities to help them reclaim farmland? Is your office a place where LGBTQIA2S+ individuals feel safe and supported?
In a time where anyone and everyone can be called to take a stand, the actions taken by companies are not going unnoticed – and neither is a lack of action. While B2C brands have led the charge, B2B can’t ignore major issues, especially those that are important to customers (or your customer’s customers).
Do Farmers Care What Your Company Thinks?
Some do, and as more farmers retire, their Millennial and Gen Z counterparts definitely do.
They won’t choose to stay loyal to a brand that doesn’t reflect their values, not only because these generations place a high priority on shared values, but because consumers do, too. They’re under immense pressure, rising from the grocery store shelf, to ensure that their operational and business practices are environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.
A study by Hotwire found that 80% of business leaders would consider terminating a vendor relationship if they felt that the company had failed to address a high-stakes communication issue. Eighty-six per cent indicated that they take values into account when they make important buying or partnership decisions.
The truth is, you can’t afford to stay quiet. But if your brand is going to speak up, you have to do it the right way.
Before Going Public, Look Inside
Last year, like many companies, we posted a black square on Instagram, recognizing the Black Lives Matter movement, and the global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. This decision was followed by, a flurry of heated internal discussions where our team faced a simple, glaring truth: we had no action plan. We had no real diversity on our team. We rarely challenged the blatant racial bias that exists in the agriculture industry and in advertising in particular. Our website didn’t even include a diversity and inclusion statement. We were “woke-washing”.
Woke-washing is the appropriation of social activist language or gestures into brand marketing without any meaningful action to back it up. The cause of the moment is put in the spotlight to capitalize on the chatter, and is soon forgotten. Brands are not the only parties guilty of this. Pew Research found that support for Black Lives Matter had steadily declined in the months following the protests.
So, our first step should have been (and yours will be, now that you’ve read this article), taking stock of what we were actually doing to help the communities we were trying to signal our support of by posting a black square.
Do your internal values, practices, and policies reflect the goal of the social cause you’re taking part in? Is your company taking real, actionable steps to help create change?
What Does Your Audience Value?
Your agriculture brand does not need to weigh in on every issue. You must understand your audience well enough to understand what is important to them.
Last week, we talked about combating bias, and that will be especially important here. You cannot assume that you know what your audience values or what their political position is. Do the research and find out.
Speaking of politics: remember that you rarely need to take a political position (as in, you don’t need to indicate whether you’re left or right, liberal or conservative, etc). At the heart of most political debate is a real issue, and that’s what you should address.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
It may be impolite of us to say it, but you’re going to need to pony up some cash.
In addition to getting your internal policies and practices in order, you must direct funds to the social causes your brand speaks up in support of. This can take a variety of forms: one-time donations, a program or foundation established and supported by your company, or ongoing financial support to an organization or cause.
Include Marginalized Voices (& Pay for Their Labour)
No matter which cause your company decides to take a stand for, you must listen to the actual individuals or groups who are affected by the issue. This may take the form of an action group within your organization, with a diverse membership, tasked with gaining a deeper understanding of issues and how best to support them. If your team isn’t diverse, hire a consultant (ideally, an individual with direct experience within the communities or groups you’re looking to support), who can advise you.
In addition to an advisory role, these consultants should be engaged to help educate your team. Nearly 60% of Canadians over the age of 55 and 51% of Canadians aged 35-54, did not learn about residential schools as students. How can your team take meaningful action without the full understanding of the structural and institutional forces that have contributed to an issue?
Understand the Risks
You can’t please everyone, and no matter which position your company decides to take, at least some of your audience won’t agree with you.
However, the cost of not saying anything may prove to be greater, especially over time. And there is a real benefit in aligning your values with those members of your audience who do agree. They’re more likely to feel an affinity to you, and to continue to do business with you.
You also may not get it right sometimes. You might find that your company has skeletons in the closet that you need to address. That’s okay. Awareness and acknowledgement of these issues, and transparency around how you’ll fix them, are key components of growth.
Talk Less, Listen More
As you move forward, constantly evaluate your motivations behind your communications on any particular issue. Are you actually trying to raise awareness, and are you taking action to affect change? Or are you trying to prove that your company is up to date on the latest trending topic? Performative social media posts feel good for a little while, but it’s not a meaningful strategy in the long term.
If you find yourself in the FOMO trap, talk less and listen more. Actively seek out opportunities to engage with the groups and individuals who are affected by the issue at hand. Amplify their voices in a meaningful way. Pay for their content, share it with your team and make time for discussions. And once again, hire consultants who can help support those conversations.
Check Your Privilege
Lastly, but certainly not least, remember that not saying anything on social issues is a luxury afforded only to those who aren’t affected by it. Some members of your team, and your audience, may find these discussions uncomfortable or inappropriate. But for some of them, these discussions are sometimes a matter of life and death, literally.
Agriculture brands have the power to innovate change in the industry. Get uncomfortable. Let’s do the work to foster a better future for all.