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Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at the coffee company's annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. #BoycottStarbucks was a response by the U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters to Schultz’s promise to hire 10,000 refugees. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at the coffee company's annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. #BoycottStarbucks was a response by the U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters to Schultz’s promise to hire 10,000 refugees. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Lawton and Summers

In a hyper-politicized world, brands must stay true to themselves Add to ...

Paul Lawton is director of planning at Weber Shandwick Canada. Cameron Summers is SVP & national practice leader of corporate and public affairs of Weber Shandwick Canada.

In our hyper-politicized environment, what should a brand do when it’s confronted with the question: Should we take a stand?

Our advice is this: Be true to yourself. But to do this, you have to understand how your brand is viewed by those who are invested in it. Today, both consumers and executives believe that corporate reputation is based more and more on a sense of shared purpose. When a brand acts in alignment with that shared purpose, it will be rewarded with a strong corporate reputation. And when consumers feel a company acts out of alignment, it stands to pay a price.

It’s hard to keep up with the torrent of reporting on brands that have found themselves embroiled in an issue tied to a politicized statement. Compared to years past, consumer activism across the political spectrum is easier to rouse in this digital age.

Read more: When business and politics mix – and when they don’t

Read more: Molson Canadian ad gets second life in light of Trump immigration ban

Read more: Huggies campaign: When promoting a good cause is good for the bottom line

A website like grabyourwallet.org, which lists companies that do business with the new U.S. administration and encourages consumers to not buy from these companies, shows how easy it is to mobilize brand boycotts. Social-media campaigns, such as #BoycottStarbucks, which was a response by the U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters to the Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz’s promise to hire 10,000 refugees, demonstrates a quick move to boycott coming from the other side of the political spectrum. Canadian consumers are not immune to the politicization of brands and reputation today. More than one Canadian company shows up on grabyourwallet.org for carrying Ivanka Trump’s products. The Canadian tech community spoke out after the U.S. presidential order limiting immigration in an open letter to the Canadian government. Signed by more than 150 leaders in the Canadian tech field, the letter explains how diversity is a strength in the tech community.

Many brands prefer to stay neutral and stick to selling products and services, which is their core business, and stay out of politics. Yet, when confronted with a reputation crisis, neutrality is sometimes difficult. When is it right for brand reputation to wade into a controversial issue? When is it not? When do you have a choice, and when do you not? These are all questions that companies should be asking themselves right now and setting preparations in motion. Because understanding them correctly can help ensure that what you do, and when and how you do it, is true to the brand. Weber Shandwick, in partnership with KRC Research, released the second instalment of our survey on how reputation matters and the importance of how companies react in times of crisis. The Company Behind the Brand II: In Goodness We Trust was conducted online among consumers and executives across 21 markets worldwide. It found that an astonishing 89 per cent of Canadian consumers form opinions about companies based on how they react in a crisis.

How should companies act?

  • 1: To reiterate, brand loyalty comes from a demonstration of shared values and purpose. Understanding your customer, what drives them, then reflecting that back to them every day should be at the core of every company’s brand and reputational strategy. The further apart brands are from the values of their core customers, the greater the risk their reputation faces.
  • 2: Conversely, our study shows that brands talk too much about financial performance or community contributions relative to how often consumers talk about these things. Alternatively, companies under-communicate their core values relative to how often consumers talk about those issues. This opens up a missed opportunity to communicate more on the issues that their public cares about. For example, 35 per cent of Canadian consumers increasingly buy from brands that share their values. When getting involved in an issue, companies must establish a link between the issue and their values and their core business. Values matter.
  • 3: After weighing the options, if companies determine their brand’s best interest is to speak out or take a stance, they stand to reap the benefit with Canadian consumers. Our study found that Canadian consumers who were aware of companies that have spoken out publicly on a controversial issue were more likely to have increased, rather than decreased, their respect for those companies.
  • 4: Consumers feel empowered to influence brand decision-making – 83 per cent of Canadian consumers believe that their actions have influence, and 94 per cent of Canadian executives surveyed agree. So speak up, knowing your audience will hear you.

Companies invest a great deal in communicating their brand reputations. While there is always some risk, companies with solid reputations can feel liberated to express their opinions that are in line with their shared values. For the most part, they have earned the right and their stakeholders are listening. It doesn’t mean that those brands will be immune to criticism.

But if brands understand what it is they truly stand for, and how the public understand them, they have a better chance of making the right decisions, especially in times of crisis – when the whole world is watching.

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