Personal View

The Trouble with Taking Sides

It's not enough for companies to publicly take a stand

Personal View

Over the past two years we have witnessed an unprecedented level of corporate engagement on political, environmental, and social issues. From climate change to immigration, we've read headline after headline about executives taking important stances on issues they would have never addressed in the past. Whether led by employees raising their voices or as a result of pressure from consumers, the reason is clear: it's good for business.

Indeed it is. According to research by Cone Communications, 78 percent of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues. Eighty-seven percent of Americans say they would purchase a product because the company stood up or advocated for an issue they care about. And 51 percent of employees say they won't even work for a company that doesn't have Backstrong social and environmental commitments.

But taking the right stance matters.

On Labor Day Nike released an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, a particularly controversial decision given the former NFL athlete's powerful protests against racial injustice and police brutality in America. The tagline reads, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

The campaign was immediately praised by many. Even more, it was a financial success. Nike received over $43 million worth of media exposure in less than 24 hours and online sales grew 31 percent over the next few days.

While Nike's recent campaign may be worthy of praise, it highlights the conflict between the company's public actions and reports of its internal culture. Earlier this year a New York Times investigation found that Nike was a "hostile and abusive work environment for women." Two former employees even filed a class-action lawsuit, citing gender pay discrimination, rampant sexual harassment, and more.

While the campaign definitely helped to bury headlines about the company's internal issues, it also highlights the hypocrisy that we often witness as more and more companies invest time and resources into taking a public stand on issues.

And consumers are paying attention.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say they conduct their own research into companies that take a stand to see if it is authentic1. And given that 47 percent of consumers won't purchase a product or service from a company if they believe their actions don't support their words2, it is time for companies to move beyond taking a stand and focus on embodying the values they publicly claim to hold.

Business leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to step up and play a role in the changes we want to see in the world. Consumer expectations have been quickly evolving, and just as companies who remain silent are publicly criticized, so will those whose words aren't in line with their actions. It's a positive trend that will only continue, making it more critical than ever for companies to focus first on having their own house in order.



1 Cone Communications research
2 FleishmanHillard research

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Nikita T. Mitchell, MBA 15, is the creator of Above the Bottom Line. Ranked as one of the best business newsletters by Fortune, Above the Bottom Line calls companies out on social and environmental issues consumers care about. GIFs and snarkiness included. Through insights and news, Mitchell helps readers rethink consumerism and hold corporations accountable—from the bottom up. She is a senior manager at Cisco and a proud graduate of Howard University.

Nikita T. Mitchell