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By Joel Foster

The Promise and Perils of Speaking Out

In the days of old, brands served as a utility and not much else. If you wanted soap, you bought soap from the brand with the best reputation, the lowest price, or the catchiest jingle. Their job was to convince you to buy their soap so they can earn more profit.

It was simple back then. But also kind of soulless.

Social media entered the world and suddenly the national conversation became all encompassing. Consumers who were used to hearing the opinions of a handful of political commentators on local news were now buried in an avalanche of hot takes.

As trust in government declined, Americans began to place more trust in the business world. For better or worse, entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet became the moral center, replacing politicians who were now viewed about as negatively as the robber barons of last century.

It was only a matter of time before consumers began to demand political action, or at least political speech, from the brands they patronize. With social media serving as an immediate connection between consumer and brand, speaking out on the latest political concerns went from rare to expected.

According to a recent Harris Poll, 62% of respondents thought that it’s important for a company to speak out publicly if they morally disagree with a law. Similarly, an Edelman survey of 2,000 Americans found that 59% believed that it was important for chief executives to speak out against “discriminatory or unethical” state legislation.

But just because the public demands something doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. Furthermore, speaking out isn’t something to take lightly. A brand should never just up and run with a hot take in order to respond to a trend. Look what happened to Pepsi.

When You Should Speak Out (And When You Should Not)

Brands don’t need to speak out on every issue, nor should they. Speaking out on everything will only leave you looking desperate for attention, not unlike the “how do you do fellow kids” phenomenon. Remember, modern consumers are savvy and will always sniff out corporate co-option from a mile away.

It’s better to pick an issue or two that align with your organization’s purpose, or that personally connects with leadership. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Dartmouth College Professor Paul Argenti lays out three important questions that businesses should ask themselves before deciding to speak out.

1. Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?

2. Can you meaningfully influence the issue?

3. Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

Argenti suggests that if the answers are all “yes”, then a business should speak out, while all “no” should give them pause. In the case of mixed answers (which will probably be more common), Argenti says a business should speak out with caution if two questions are answered with a yes. As for two nos, Argenti advises sitting it out.

How to Speak Out 

You’ve done some thinking, your take is molten hot and you’re ready to enter the whirlwind of “the conversation.” Now it’s time to craft that inspirationally defiant post and change the world, right?

Hang on a bit.

In the world of social media, even the most well-intentioned post can turn radioactive if not given the right amount of thoughtfulness and tact. We see it every week, where some aloof CEO puts his digital foot in his mouth and is forced to spend the next month doing damage control. 

But if you’re thoughtful and authentic enough, there will be no damage to control.

Consider two recent examples showing the dos and don’ts of speaking out. We start with online dating giant, who decided to wade into dangerous territory, speaking out against the recent Texas law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. 

Along with speaking out, Match created a fund to “ensure that employees and their dependents would be able to seek care outside of the state.” This is a daring play by Match that had the potential to blow up in their faces and even invoke a boycott.

If we want to understand why Match’s gambit paid off, let’s look at the move in relation to the three questions posed by Argenti:

1. Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?

The issue aligns with Match’s purpose of helping “singles find the kind of relationship they’re looking for,” whatever that might look like. Additionally, Match’s CEO, Shar Dubey, connected her own experiences as a woman living in Texas as motivation for the post, as well as an internal memo explaining the move. 

2. Can you meaningfully influence the issue?

By establishing the fund, Match is taking action on “meaningfully influencing the issue.” Nothing shows that you’re serious more than putting your money where your mouth is.

3. Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

Due to the severity of the law and how much it clashes with popular opinion, Match could be reasonably confident that their audience would sympathize. Sure, there might be a few who boycott the service and flee to Plenty of Fish or (more likely) Christian Mingle. But Match’s bold stance will likely attract more than they repel.

The Cautionary Tale of Sweetgreens

Now let’s move onto the Goofus to Match’s Gallant: Sweetgreen.

Not so long ago, the salad spinners at Sweetgreen were the darlings of the fast-casual dining meets Silicon Valley universe (yeah, that exists now). The company raised $200 million in capital by the end of 2018 and was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies after collaborating with influential figures like David Chang, Naomi Osaka and Kendrick Lamar.

But with one post, the company became (in)famous for another reason.

In August of this year, Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman posted on LinkedIn, noting that “78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people.” Neman then sticks the landing, declaring that “we have been quick to put in place mask and vaccine mandates but zero conversation on HEALTH MANDATES.”

The blowback was shift and severe, as users claimed that Neman “hates fat people” while others pointed out the self-serving implications of a salad proprietor proclaiming that salads cure COVID. New York Magazine joked that Neman was suggesting that “salads work better than vaccines.” Just like that, Sweetgreen became a laughing stock.

Aside from the weird, arbitrary capitalization and douchy, paternalistic tone, the message just came at a really bad time in America. We’ve reached a political clusterfuck over masks and vaccines, causing the pandemic to last well past its expiration date. The last thing we need is some fast-casual cretin telling us that the government should force us to eat salads instead of taking a vaccine. 

Before You Speak Out, Learn Who You Are

As we can see from these examples, intention matters. Speaking out on issues doesn’t mean ranting about the latest hot button issue to cause controversy or boost sales. It means using your influence to meaningfully take action on an issue that genuinely moves you and your team.

But discovering what moves you to speak out requires you first to understand your organization’s purpose. Of course, profit and growth may be high priorities, but what drives your organization beyond that? The answer to this question will unlock your guiding star, allowing you to make decisions that are intentional, effective and authentic to you and your business.

If your organization needs help finding its purpose or figuring out whether it’s time to jump in the ring of national discourse, get in touch with us. BRINK has years of experience working with brands to bring out their purpose in order streamline their decision making and make their work more meaningful. Find your purpose and your voice will organically come through it, whether it’s for the public or just for your own team.

By Joel Foster