This question has been asked for as long as there have been businesses and differences of opinion. Recently, this topic has been brought to a head with the black lives matter movement. It used to be that taking “no stance” was the safest. But with the death of George Floyd, there are many individuals who see a lack of a stance as a stance of its own. This has been a deeply dividing issue with some business owners wanting to get involved while others have worried that standing for the cause was akin to supporting mass destruction of property and being anti-business.
So what should a business do?
Should business owners share their personal opinions in public spaces? Are there times where the need for speaking up outweighs business caution? Is it possible that speaking up on a topic you feel passionately about will cost you customers?
While the answer to all of these questions is “yes” it is up to your business to decide when the issue and need for action is larger than your business. Only you can decide the price of the issue at hand. For instance, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa decided they would rather shut their bakery outside of Portland after being fined $135,000 for refusing to make a wedding cake in 2013 for a lesbian couple.
But sometimes it's not even a question of refusing or agreeing to do business in support of a cause you feel passionately about. Sometimes it's about lending your voice to the movement. By becoming a vocal advocate for a cause you may alienate customers and that might be fine with you because the cause is more important. But there are a few questions you should consider first:
Understand the Ramifications of Free Speech
There are several CEOs and lower level employees that have been removed from positions based on their public support or harsh criticisms of certain causes. Before you undertake any support (or condemnation) of a large-scale issue, you should be very clear about how much you're willing to risk. Could you lose customers, which means a loss of revenue or could you lose your position entirely because you get fired or are asked to step down? Is the cause worth it in your mind? Is it possible that your support or criticism will affect your ability to make a living going forward? Worst case scenario, could today's words follow you into the future?
Will You Gain Customers
Coming out in support of a cause could mean certain organizations boycott your operation but there also could be a flip side to that. In some situations, when a business owner vocalizes an opinion in support of a particular group that group may come to the business’ assistance as it came to theirs.
Another time when public support can benefit a business owner is if its demographic is largely comprised of Millennials. Millennials want to be part of something greater. They want a better world and they want to feel like they're contributing to it, either directly through their volunteer work or indirectly by supporting businesses that advocate for their worldviews.
If the position you are about to take is a popular one among young people, and your business sells to this group, taking a vocal stance in support of it may benefit your business even if you end up losing some of your older customers. However, that does depend on the stance you're taking. There are some themes that most millennials support but the opposite is true as well.
Before taking a stance on an issue through your business, you should also consider:
- Is this in line with your brand? Does this stance make sense based on what other people know about your business? Or will this vocalizing of your opinion be a shock to many of your supporters?
- Does your business walk the walk? If you're going to publicly support an issue of great magnitude, you want to ensure that you're doing it through more than just lip service. How does your business exemplify the position you're about to make public? You do not want to be accused of newsjacking or jumping on the bandwagon. Authenticity is extremely important to a brand these days so make sure your public stance is reflected in your business operations and decisions.
- Does this stance conflict with any you've taken in the past? If it does, are you ready to explain the difference? Why did you advocate for one side of the argument before and now you've changed your mind?
- Do you serve a small niche or a large constituency? The size of the demographic of your target market may help you answer the question of whether you should vocally proclaim your support or deny it. The demographic of your ideal customer and their preferences will also help you understand the length at which you should go for the issue at hand. If this subject means everything to your ideal demographic, there is likely little reason you shouldn't embrace it and proclaim it publicly. However, if you serve a small niche market and they are adamantly opposed to the stance you could be taking then you need to be aware of the possible ramifications of alienating your target market .
- Is it the right thing to do? Sometimes what appears to potentially make bad business sense is just the right thing to do. When that happens, you have to follow your conscience.
To publicly support or not to support is a big question for today's business owners. It can feel like a fine line between advocating for things you believe in and alienating customers. Unless you're a publicly-traded company, you will ultimately be the decision maker on how public you should go with the issue. Hopefully, these questions will help you navigate what's best for your business and your brand.
Christina R. Metcalf (formerly Green) is a marketer who enjoys using the power of story and refuses to believe meaningful copy can be written by bots. She helps chamber and small business professionals find the right words when they don’t have the time or interest to do so.