As a small-business owner, it's in your nature to please everyone who comes through your door. Therefore, it can be a little scary to take a political stance and risk alienating some customers. However, in today's day and age, showing support for social movements can actually prove to be a beneficial competitive strategy. Brands large and small, from Los Angeles to New York, have even designed products that allow them to capitalize on social movements, and you should consider this collective behavior in your own decision making.
Is it right for your brand to also choose a side? As with all business decisions, you'll want to do a little research first. If you're a conservative in a very liberal area (or vice versa), you might run the risk of a boycott if you tell everyone about your beliefs. That's not to say that your beliefs are inherently right or wrong, but that capitalizing on a social movement might not be practical or comfortable for every situation.
Examples of Current Social Movements
Social movements inherently fall on the more democratic side of the political spectrum. Whereas more conservative political parties tend to strive to keep things the way they are, the point of a social movement is to enact social change and to disrupt the status quo. Some political opportunities do envelop social movements within them, however: for example, Barack Obama's campaign for change that awakened many politically-dormant, unsatisfied Americans.
However, there are worthwhile causes that resonate with people who take a more conservative approach, and the polarized political system may or may not be your best bet to position your business on. Depending on your business and context, political power has a funny habit of holding grudges.
Types of social movements include human rights or civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, the gay rights movement and women's rights movements. Political stances can turn into full-blown movements, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Medicare for All movement or numerous peace movements, and current events can spark new social movements as well. In addition, causes like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, animal welfare and climate change or the broader environmental movement are also important to be aware of as a business owner.
Many social movements often spawn counterprotests as well. Depending on your circumstances or your business's circumstances, you might want to show support for movements like All Lives Matter, the Thin Blue Line, the pro-life movement or second amendment rights. However, before choosing to show support for any social movement, you'll need to consider your audience and whether their brand loyalty will increase or decrease as a result of your business's public stance. If most of your buyers are women, maybe it's not the best idea to poo-poo a women's movement.
Choosing a Movement That Matches Your Brand
What you choose to support comes down to what you want your brand to stand for, the beliefs of your current audience and the beliefs of your potential audience. Backing conflicting movements in an attempt to please everyone may backfire, but it's another option on the table. For example, if you sell customized T-shirts, is there harm in selling a "Don't Tread on Me" option alongside a pride flag option? Probably not, since customers can choose whichever they want.
As another example, consider two companies that supply ranch gear. One sells mainly to ranchers in a conservative area, whereas the other gets a lot of business selling gear to "city slickers" coming in for the dude ranch experience. Despite selling the same products, these companies reach different audiences and will need to judge the impact of supporting specific social movements accordingly. Will it be a competitive move or a potentially alienating one?
You don't even have to choose a controversial movement when aligning your business with certain values. Consider the soap and skin care company Dove, which has made an effort to promote self-confidence and a positive body image in its advertisements. In doing so, the brand has also cleverly created an association between its products and "real beauty". Its bottom line benefits from its promotion of a social movement, and that's ultimately your goal as well.
Communicating Your Support
Once you've determined that showing support for a social movement isn't likely to alienate a substantial portion of your audience, you may feel tempted to dive right in and go public. First, however, it's important to take a second to evaluate your policies to make sure you won't be criticized or called a hypocrite. Expect to be scrutinized once you declare support for a social movement. For example, if you wanted to support a $15/hour minimum wage increase, you'll need to pay all of your employees at least $15 per hour in order to be taken seriously.
In addition, do some research about the movement to understand the kind of language it uses. Inclusive and empowering language matters a lot for a social movement, and you don't want to get it wrong. For example, saying you support gay pride isn't as inclusive as saying you support the LGBTQ+ community, or, when shedding light on sexual assault, choose empowering words like "survivor" instead of "victim."
Next, you'll need to decide which touchpoints allow you to effectively communicate your support for a social movement to your current and potential customers. Touchpoints are any form of interaction your company has with the public and include social media campaigns, email marketing and your brick-and-mortar store.
Social Media Campaigns
Social media practically spawns modern social movements, so leveraging popular platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube can allow your company to reach new customers and build a following. One great idea for building engagement and increasing brand loyalty involves collecting user-generated content. Ask your followers to submit their photos and stories related to the movement and feature the best ones on your social networks. You can even require that the photos display your brand or product in some way.
Another way to call attention to your brand's support is to conduct interviews with movement leaders. Give them a platform to share their message with your audience. Host blogs about the movement on your website and then share them through your social media channels. Show people how you take action and encourage their collective action as well.
Get creative! Conduct a live Twitter Q&A session or interview employees who feel especially passionate about the cause. Have an employee volunteer day and share live updates on Instagram. You want your brand to immediately come to mind when someone thinks about companies that support social movements, and leveraging social media is the golden ticket.
Email Marketing or Newsletters
You can incorporate support for a social movement into your email campaigns or newsletters in several different ways. For happy occasions related to the movement, such as International Women's Day or Pride Month, consider sending a discount code to all of your customers. For more somber occasions, release a message of support to your customers to let them know you're an advocate in good times and in bad times.
Be sure to modify some of your important social media posts for email and share them with your mailing list to reach as broad of an audience as possible. Although social media is immensely popular, not everyone has an account or remains active, but most people regularly check their email. Be careful not to send emails too often, however. Consider sending a digest email of your social media highlights.
Physical Signs or Flyers
Your brick-and-mortar store can also display signage that shows support for a particular cause. Many small businesses have begun to display a small pride flag in their window to indicate that they are a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community. Other movements also have iconic images that you can choose to display in your storefront (as long as those images aren't copyrighted, of course).
Alternatively, create a flyer version of any emails that you send. If you email an official statement about a tragic news story related to the movement, print out the statement and display it where patrons can pause to read it. If you want to advertise a celebratory sale, put all the details on flyers throughout the store as well.
Creating a Product Line
Advertising your support for a social movement is essential in order to create a strong and positive association with your brand, but creating a product line that relates to the social movement can help you actually generate revenue from it. Tread carefully, however: You will draw criticism from a completely self-serving product line. Consider donating a significant portion (or all!) of the proceeds generated by those products to reputable frontline social movement organizations.
Donating all revenue from a product line may make you reluctant to put in the work, but think about the number of new customers who will be drawn to your brand due to this offer. How many of them will also buy something else to directly feed your bottom line? How many will return for another product or recommend you to a friend? These secondary actions can generate profit for your business.
What kind of products should you consider selling? The answer largely depends on your current product line, but it's also very easy for any company to design and sell a T-shirt or coffee mug that promotes the ethos of a particular social movement. However, if the movement is already associated with a particular color scheme (International Women's Day is associated with purple, for example, and of course there's the rainbow flag for the LGBTQ+ community), developing a special product is as simple as changing the color for a limited product run.
Getting Your Employees On Board
Be sure to provide support to your employees when you transition to a more vocal stance on social issues. For example, how would your employees react if a trans customer approached them? Some people have never met anyone who is transgender, and this lack of experience can show quite obviously in their body language or speech. Coach your team on using pronouns, politely asking someone's name and generally just making everyone feel welcome.
Although you may think your team doesn't need it, a general diversity training can be very helpful too in order to avoid mishaps surrounding gender inequality, racism or discrimination against people with disabilities, among other faux pas.
Consequences of Staying Silent
Staying silent can feel like a safe option, but with more and more of your competitors taking a stand, you might actually be at a disadvantage if you choose to stay silent. Your customers might assume that your silence signals disapproval, and they might choose to spend their money with a brand that is undeniably positive in its support for a social movement. Think about historic movements that have already resolved themselves in the United States, like the women's suffrage movement or the labor movement. Wouldn't you like your company to go down in history as having played a role in an equally important movement?
Proclaiming your support for a movement doesn't have to be a huge effort on your part, nor does it have to require much of a budget. If you already have a marketing team, give them a green light for drawing content inspiration from a social movement for social media. If the response from your followers seems encouraging, broaden your horizons by considering a product line or additional marketing efforts. If you're really not ready to make a loud statement, find a window cling related to the movement and hang it in your shop window.
Will you lose some customers based on your stance? Inevitably, some people will contact you and express their disgust. You can't expect everyone to agree with you, and that's OK as long as you continue to treat those folks and their opinions with respect. You may actually be surprised by the support you receive, and if you play your cards right, you can generate some extra sales too — or save the world!
- IMD: Hitching a Ride on Social or Political Movements Can Help Firms Profit, and Change for the Better
- Forbes: How Brands Can Serve Social Movements
- CNBC: Selling Social Movements: 5 Brands Using Politics in Their Ad Campaigns — for Better and for Worse
- PR Week: How Dove's Real Beauty Campaign Won, and Nearly Lost, Its Audience
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.