It’s hard to believe it’s been less than six months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. This global outbreak sparked a massive disruption in our lives, from how we work to how we shop. COVID-19 and social movements like Black Lives Matter and Pride have ignited a new generation of social activism. In the last few months, these movements have experienced tremendous growth across the United States and the world. And, as individuals continue to rally behind these efforts, businesses are also taking a stand.
Traditionally, companies have done their best to stay out of social issues, fearing they would alienate any current or potential customers. As typically profit-driven entities, it didn’t make good business sense to have a public opinion about controversial issues. Still, there are hundreds of studies on the link between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and financial performance, largely pointing toward positive impacts on a company’s bottom line. For example, Nike experienced a 31 percent increase in sales after releasing their famous Colin Kaepernick ad in 2018 where they took a clear stance on police brutality and racism.
As you might expect, the shift from the stay-out-of-it mentality of businesses toward CSR is largely driven by consumer behavior — particularly by younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z represent more than $350 billion of spending power in the United States alone, with Gen Z accounting for more than 40 percent of global consumers and 25 percent of the global workforce. My previous blog post, “How to Elevate the Gen Z Brand Experience,” details how purchasing decisions by millennials and Gen Z are more rooted in ethics and morals than previous generations. In a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, 70 percent of Gen Z respondents say they try to make purchases from companies they consider ethical. In fact, two-thirds of consumers worldwide say they would “switch, avoid, or boycott brands based on their stance on controversial issues.” This type of data makes it more apparent every day that brands who don’t live the values they preach and mobilize behind a cause will get left behind.
Today, B2C and B2B companies alike have refused to stay silent, especially on the recent killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. B2B tech brands like Microsoft, Dropbox and Adobe have publicly expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, providing actionable ways of how their leaders, employees and communities could get involved. Here’s how they did it:
- Microsoft: Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella introduced the “United for Change” initiative, which emphasizes both the responsibility of every employee and the entire organization to take action to fight racial injustice and empower the Black community.
- Dropbox: Dropbox shared an excerpt from a company wide email from CEO Drew Houston, where he introduced a series of town halls meant to address and understand racism in the U.S. Houston also donated $500,000 to the Black Lives Matter Foundation and pledged to match all donations by Dropbox employees.
- Adobe: CEO Shantanu Narayen and Chief Human Resources Officer Gloria Chen released an open letter to their employees, detailing a $1 million contribution to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and a company holiday on Juneteenth — the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
According to a recent Sprout Social poll, two-thirds of consumers say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues. Yes, businesses can face backlash for standing up for a cause, like when Pepsi was accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement in their 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner. But, when consumers agree with the brand’s stance, 28 percent will publicly praise the company, while only 20 percent will publicly criticize the company if they disagree. Businesses have more to gain from getting involved in social issues than they have to lose; in fact, the top three emotional reactions from consumers when businesses take a stand are “intrigued, impressed and engaged.”
B2C brands are held accountable to their consumers, stakeholders and employees, but B2B brands have an additional group they must answer to—other businesses. B2B tends to focus more on building relationships than B2C, making it even more critical for B2B companies to establish a core set of corporate values.
So, what can B2B PR and marketing professionals do to communicate these values authentically to customers? Here are a few recommendations to help your brand develop and share clear opinions on some of today’s most pressing social issues:
- Define your brand purpose. As author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek says, start with why. Why does your company exist? Why do you do what you do? Take a hard look at your mission statement. Are your corporate pillars just words on the wall (think: innovation, integrity, communication) or are they actionable ideas (think: always do the right thing, listen and learn from others, take responsibility for your own actions)? Maybe it’s time to revisit your corporate philosophy. Another reminder from Sinek: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
- Give more than lip service. Companies must be careful about performative activism, like posting a hashtag on social media or releasing a broad, passive statement. Like many parents and teachers have taught us throughout our lives, actions speak louder than words. Communicate to your customers how you work with businesses that align with your corporate values, and don’t be afraid to cut ties with businesses that don’t. Build new educational programs, training and recruiting efforts. Don’t view these actions as checking your CSR box, but rather an opportunity to reshape how your organization functions in its entirety — diversity & inclusion consultant Lily Zheng calls it corporate social justice (CSJ).
- Empower your employees. Your employees aren’t just your employees for eight hours a day, five days a week — they are your 24/7 brand ambassadors. As Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella said in his letter mentioned above to all Microsoft employees: “We all have a role to play. I will do the work. The company will do the work. I am asking each of you to do the work. And together, we will help make the difference we want to see in the world.” Equip your employees with the tools they need to communicate your values, whether it’s providing them with impactful content to share on their personal social media channels or creating new employee resource groups.
Contact us to learn how your B2B tech brand can market and sell responsibly.