Authentic brands and political speech: Can companies have it both ways?

Brands see both dangers and benefits when employees publicly address social and cultural issues, according to The CMO Survey, but they should still be encouraged to do so – with proper training.

US companies are encouraging employees to speak out in support of their brands but are muting their voices when it comes to political issues in our increasingly polarised landscape. Can companies have it both ways?

To answer this question, marketing leaders must first determine whether or not their brands are political actors. Recent high-profile cases, such as Nike and Patagonia, might lead media viewers to conclude that the answer is yes. However, recent findings from The CMO Survey indicate that brand activism is still a relatively uncommon tactic for companies, with only 28% of marketing leaders reporting they are willing to use their brands for such purposes as of February 2021 (compared to 17.7% in February 2018).

That 57% increase is likely due to the fact that the ongoing pandemic, murder of George Floyd and other economic issues have put the spotlight on wide-ranging inequalities in society, and brands feel they must step up. Importantly, this view is even stronger among consumers. Some 68% of consumers want brands to speak out, including 82% of African Americans, 79% of Asian Americans, 71% of the LGBTQ community, 46% of millennials, and 42% of gen Z. Other research shows that 60% of employees feel the same way.

The types of political activism brand marketers support

When asked, “Which of the following types of political activism do you think are appropriate for your brand?,” marketing leaders expressed strong support for “encouraging citizens to vote” at 93%, followed by “supporting a specific piece of legislation” at 43.5%. Beyond these two priorities, however, marketers’ support for political activism falls sharply, as indicated by the chart below.

Source: The CMO Survey, 2021

Support for brand and employee political activism varies

Digging deeper into our research, two facts stand out. Specifically, while almost 30% of marketing leaders believe it appropriate for their brands to take a stance on politically charged issues, only 26% report that they believe it is appropriate for their employees to do so by speaking out. Even more surprising is the fact that this percentage was 53% in February 2020, pointing to a 51% drop during the tumultuous year.

The acceptability of employee speech also varies across company type. B2C product companies are the most accepting (32%), likely because they strive to have their brands mirror the perspectives and values of their consumers, and helping their employees amplify brand opinions is an important way to do so. B2C service companies, on the other hand, are significantly less likely to believe it is appropriate (14%), likely because employees are often considered the product. Looking across sectors, the CPG/FMCG industry is highest at 42%, while just 7% of healthcare industry marketers deemed employees speaking out appropriate for their brand. Companies with a higher proportion of internet sales (greater than 10%) are also more accepting than companies with fewer internet sales (32%).

The debate about whether it’s good or bad for brands to speak out, regardless of who speaks, is hotly contested. There are plenty of stories about companies receiving negative press following their activism. When done poorly, such activism looks out-of-touch. For example, Pepsi’s 2017 ad campaign, ‘Live Now – for the Moments’, which featured model Kendall Jenner joining a protest and handing a soda to a cop, was widely scolded for trivialising the Black Lives Matters movement. As a result, it was pulled in less than 48 hours.

On the other hand, there is evidence that supports a potential shift in the tide. Companies such as The Boston Beer Company, Procter & Gamble, and Airbnb have received positive press for their public discussions regarding politically charged issues such as the Covid-19 vaccine and racial inequality. Consistent with this, the Edelman Trust Barometer says that public trust of companies and corporate leaders is higher than the trust of government, media, and nonprofit organisations, indicating that this may be the right time to speak boldly on the issues that matter to today’s consumers.

If this is true, why do many companies view employee speech so negatively? Why not use these internal brand advocates to spread important brand-aligned messages or champion their employees’ diversity of thought?

Three reasons brands check employee activism

There are three reasons that might hold companies back from supporting their employees in this way. First, the US is more divided than ever. Issues such as voter ID laws, police reform, immigration, foreign affairs and more are politically fraught. That means brands can antagonise a large portion of their buying constituency by taking too strong a stance on an issue. When brands do speak, their positions are typically nuanced and carefully reviewed by leadership. Employees, on the other hand, may shoot from the hip and use social media as a bully pulpit.

Second, employee speech creates both external and internal risks. Externally, one disaffected employee or even an overly naïve enthusiastic supporter can create a Twitter storm or potentially get their company into legal trouble. Employees are living, breathing representations of a company’s brand, both in and out of the office; therefore, adverse reactions towards an employee can very quickly ladder up to company backlash. Internally, what one employee might consider acceptable language, another might consider offensive or oppressive, creating an unhealthy, unsafe, and even toxic work environment.

While US federal law protects the right for employees to discuss labour-related issues, and several state laws prohibit companies from discriminating against or coercing/influencing their employee’s political activity. Therefore, the onus is on the company to protect its employees against internal workplace harassment. This is not easy, as evidenced by a striking 73% of employees reporting they have talked with colleagues about politics at work, and 42% have had a “political disagreement” at work.

A third reason is that it is difficult to fully prepare employees for political dialogue, even if their beliefs are aligned with those of the company. Not all employees are natural spokespersons, especially when put in pressure-filled situations, and the stakes are high.

For example, in March 2015, Starbucks launched its ‘Race Together‘ campaign, where the company included the phrase on all cups and encouraged its employees to engage with customers in discussions about race. It is easy to appreciate the challenge of preparing thousands of baristas for these discussions or monitoring these conversations. Starbucks had to ‘live and let live’ and hope their employees would shine through in these challenging conversations.

Unfortunately, the campaign was quickly declared a failure, with consumers and critics deeming it insensitive and even tone-deaf. As one commentator noted: “The initiative’s undefined goals and misguided tactics (setting people up to have complicated conversations without any direction or guidance) mean it’s very unlikely to fix the racial bias that sparked it – and could even cause harm by distracting from substantive attempts to remedy racial inequality.”

Why brands should support employee speech despite its risks

Given these risks, should brands encourage employees to speak out? The answer, surprisingly, is a resounding yes.

First, brands cannot discourage their employees from speaking out on political issues they are passionate about and then expect them to bring their authentic selves to work and act as an external brand ambassadors. Companies cannot have it both ways. This dissonance will grow and become a corporate crisis: witness what happened with Coinbase, which saw 60 employees leave when the CEO pledged that the firm would not engage in social activism. Was the widespread media backlash, not to mention the cost of these exit packages, worth it? We doubt it.

Second, employees are increasingly looking for employers that allow them to be true to who they are. A full 70% of employees said their work defines their sense of purpose. That means they want to do purposeful work and work for a company that shares and promotes their values.

Many managers are trained to encourage diversity of thought, where employees are expected to bring their opinions, backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses to workplace conversations in order to stimulate healthy conflict and innovative thinking. If employers succeed in providing an open environment in which employees feel safe to speak their minds, whether it be for politically charged issues or internal company debates, they can create a constructive and collaborative workplace. If not, it may be hard to attract employees in the first place – an increasingly challenging task.

Third, employees are more likely to remain at a company where they feel as if they are encouraged to be authentic and that their opinions are heard and valued. Given the fierce war for talent, companies need to do everything they can to retain their talent. Human resources leaders know that 55% of employees are now looking for work, meaning that turnover, and its attendant drag on organisational productivity, could be significant in the coming months and years. Better than providing some general guidelines for speech and providing a safe space for employees to speak on issues near and dear to their hearts, internally on bulletin boards, chat sites and at meetings, and externally via social media.

Finally, as discussed at length in previous CMO Survey research on the social media multiplier effect, companies frequently lean on their employees to use their own social media to tout their brands with the view that this authentic voice rings true with customers and builds a connection to the company. However, it can create a contradiction if a company expects its employees to actively engage with its brands on social media but dissuades them from speaking out on social media or otherwise – even on their own time – on political issues.

Guidelines for supporting employee speech at organisations

Companies must consider their individual risk tolerance levels when deciding whether to encourage authentic, yet sometimes controversial, discussions to take place under their roofs. While there are several risks to supporting employee authenticity, there can also be rewards. The answer will depend, in part, on what type of company the leaders want it to be. However, it will also depend on how political speech enables or inhibits the power of the brand to attract and retain customers, partners and employees.

If you decide this is your company’s strategic direction, here are some simple guidelines for making employee speech a source of value in your organisation:

  1. Provide brand training. Share your organisation’s north star, mission, vision and corporate values. Be clear about your organisation’s purpose, future direction, and how it serves consumers.
  2. Share your thinking on how your brand selects key issues to speak out on, engages the media and furthers its position over time.
  3. Offer clear guidelines on how to frame speech when engaging with these issues, including what is and what isn’t acceptable, both internally and externally.
  4. Tie brand values to team and individual values and behaviours. Many companies include this linkage in personal development plans to increase accountability and build a respectful culture that offers opportunity to all. Again, provide training on what is and isn’t expected in terms of personal behaviour to make abstract concepts come alive.
  5. Walk the talk. The C-suite and other senior leaders should abide by corporate speech guidelines as well as promote values whenever they can. More broadly, corporate speech should be backed up by clear actions that the brand takes on particular issues. This type of behaviour will help brands avoid charges that they are making empty statements for the sake of public relations.
  6. Finally, provide opportunities for employees to speak and live their values. This can happen in a number of ways. For example, companies can offer employees the opportunities to provide their input on key issues by participating in the brand’s responses to market trends and developments; setting up employee affinity groups around shared identity; and providing paid or unpaid time off for employees to work with charities, and social and political activism groups.

Brand and employee speech can be a powerful attractor to consumers and employees if used wisely. How will your organisation put it to work today?

Register to participate in the upcoming 2022 UK CMO Survey or take part in the US CMO Survey

Christine Moorman is the T Austin Finch senior professor of business administration, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University. She is founder and director of The CMO Survey and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Marketing.

Megan Ryan is an MBA candidate at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business (class of 2022). She is a research fellow for The CMO Survey and also represents Fuqua as a McGowan and Forté fellow.