Social Advocacy and Politics: Seller Beware
Traditionally, businesses avoid taking positions on public policy issues for the simple reason that their goal is to maximize sales. Taking an issue position runs the risk of alienating potential customers on the other side of that issue. But increasingly, businesses are finding that either their customer base is far more likely to favor a particular policy position or the company’s leadership has a strong position that they are willing to endorse even if it costs some customers. Regardless of the reason, it is certain that businesses need to think carefully about taking a public-facing policy position and be willing to stick to their decision. Otherwise, they likely risk a social media marketing crisis.
Currently, Land’s End is facing such a social media marketing crisis. In response to a recent photo shoot and interview with legendary feminist and founder of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinem, Land’s End was inundated with messages from upset, pro-life customers. Even though Steinem did not discuss abortion in her interview – focusing instead on women’s equality – the angry voices were strong enough to persuade Land’s End to scrub Steinem from its website. But then the retailer went a step further and removed a feature allowing customers to donate to the ERA Coalition Fund for Women’s Equality by adding its logo to any Land’s End product.
This full public pendulum swing led to irate messages from an entirely different set of customers, these being pro-women’s equality and pro-choice. In other words, by endorsing and then backing down on a principled endorsement of women’s equality, Land’s End ended up angering all of its customers holding positions on either side of this issue.
Land’s End’s failure in this matter highlights the need for businesses to be committed to any policy advocacy positions they take. Rather than discourage businesses from engaging in issue advocacy, which I think more businesses should do, they should think through any advocacy campaign carefully in terms of both market impact and their principled commitment to the issue. And if they decide to take a stand, it should be a committed stand; an attempt to lead the conversation, rather than allowing themselves to buckle under pressure from loud activists.
Businesses need to understand that oftentimes activists can raise a loud protest that exceeds their actual numbers. Just because a group of customers get angry and loud about a position the business takes does not mean they represent a large portion of the company’s customer base. Businesses need to do the math to determine the net impact an advocacy effort will have on its sales. And it should note that the potential loss of some customers will be offset by gains in new customers drawn to the company because of its issue stance.
Good market research, a clear understanding of a company’s own commitment to an issue and an effective social marketing campaign must all figure into any decision to get a business involved in a policy debate. Do this work up front and then stick to your guns to avoid Land’s End’s predicament.