Finding Your Voice: A Guide for Brands Navigating Contentious Issues

Written by Trident DMG

Much has been reported about brands’ struggles with whether to publicly engage with contentious social issues. Recent research provides helpful guidance. In Citizen brand: The emergence of brandstanding as organizational engagement and civic duty, Luke Capizzo and Jeannette I. Iannacone find that companies should tick four boxes when taking a public stance: sincerity; genuineness; authenticity; and consistency.

Sincerity means engaging on an issue for the purpose of forwarding it, not your profits. For an example of insincerity, look to Bioré. In May of 2023, the skincare brand came under fire for a paid social media post that delved into the issues of mental health and gun violence. The influencer whom Bioré paid for this post is a student at Michigan State University, where a deadly mass shooting occurred in February 2023. After describing the anxiety associated with going under lockdown during the shooting, the influencer states “get it all out, not only what’s in your pores but most importantly what’s on your mind, too.” The insincerity was obvious—skincare and recovering from gun violence don’t go hand in hand, and Bioré pulled the post and apologized.

Genuineness means only engaging on issues in which you truly believe. For another example of the opposite, recall Volkswagen’s ‘Clean Diesel’ campaign, in which the company touted its diesel engines as environmentally friendly, while fitting their diesel cars with illegal defeat devices to mask their true emissions during government tests. When the EPA discovered this scheme in 2015, Volkswagen’s hypocrisy led to a massive reputational hit. The New York Times summed up this fiasco with an editorial titled, ‘What Was Volkswagen Thinking?’ If you talk the talk, don’t install an illegal pedometer to triple the length of your walk.

Authenticity requires an organization’s actions to align with their words. Retail giant Target recently exhibited inauthentic engagement in May of 2023. Target CEO Brian Cornell appeared on Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast, where he stated initiatives in diversity, equity, and inclusion have “fueled much of our growth over the last nine years.” Yet, Target pulled LGBTQ+ merchandise from its inventory following threats from conservative extremists. Target’s removal of the merchandise faced criticism from activists and politicians alike, including GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis and California Governor Gavin Newsome. Target communicated its values of diversity, but was called out as inauthentic for its actions. Capizzo and Iannacone account for situations like this when they wrote, “authenticity will not create consensus and (brands) should accept the inevitability of dissensus as a known risk.”

Consistency in public engagement is defined by long-term efforts and adapting to everchanging landscapes. Engaging on an issue is a commitment to continue engaging on it. Few seem as consistent as Ben & Jerry’s, which has a long and sustained history of speaking out on issues such as criminal justice reform, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate awareness. Ben & Jerry’s efforts have been covered extensively:

HuffPost: Ben & Jerry’s Showed America What Real Corporate Activism Looks Like

American Marketing Association: How Ben & Jerry’s Took Both Its Ice Cream and Mission Global

Tasting Table: Ben & Jerry’s Unique Take On Corporate Activism

With the four pillars in mind, brands should ask ‘Is this genuine? Is this sincere? Is this authentic? Is this consistent?’ If you answer no to any or all the above questions, your attempts at public policy engagement may be better left in the drafts folder. Most importantly, don’t get involved if you aren’t ready for opposition to come after you.

To access Capizzo and Iannacone’s full research, click here.