Marketing Monday: When should your business express an opinion?

I held off on Marketing Monday last week — it just didn’t feel right to talk about increasing your business when we were still learning the extent of injuries in Boston.

Deciding if, or how, your business should respond to current events can be tricky business.

Maybe it seems straight forward to post an expression of grief about the Boston Marathon on your business Facebook page.

But what if one of your customers responds with a mention of how many civilians the U.S. has killed in the Middle East since 9/11, and a political debate about American international policy erupts? How would you respond?

This is not to suggest that the Boston attack was justified or that businesses are wrong to offer public condolences. Instead, it’s suggesting that when you wade into responding to tragedy or passionate issues, it might not be as simple as following your heart.

On the flip side, what if you *don’t* respond and continue business as usual? Is that inappropriate?

This post doesn’t offer clear direction but instead I offer questions you might ask yourself:

1. What topics or issues will our business address?

Convince and Convert called this Smirnoff ad about gay marriage its social media image of the week.

Convince and Convert called this Smirnoff ad about gay marriage its social media image of the week.

If your business isn’t generally political — you aren’t an advocacy organization, you just sell your goods or services — are there causes or times that would make you take a position?

When hurricane Sandy hits, does your business respond in some way? Does it matter if you’re geographically close enough to feel its effects?

Then if you take up a collection for Sandy victims, what if one of your employees asks you to do the same for the American Cancer Society? Does it matter if the cause is AIDS or mental illness instead?

What if one of your team members feels strongly about gun control or abortion and wants the business to publicly support that cause?

Convince and Convert, a marketing firm, hailed a Smirnoff ad that supported gay marriage.

Depending on the business and its philosophy, it can be a valid decision to stay neutral on every topic or to be passionately vocal on divisive issues — but wherever you are on that spectrum, you should probably think through a consistent approach and philosophy.

2. What tone will we take?

If your usual marketing tone is light hearted, do you get somber for something serious or try to pull off being playful? Is it better to have a consistent voice or switch it up if you might offend?

It’s pretty typical to see critiques of businesses’ response to tragedy on social media, so much as I would hate to find myself in Glamour magazine’s fashion don’ts photo roundup, I’d hate to end up being a model for what not to do in a tragedy. For example:

The Times story included this snippet about a business maintaining its usual playful tone, even in the face of natural disaster:

the Town Shop, a lingerie store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that is known for posting cheeky comments about news events in its windows.

For Sandy, the Town Shop reworked a sign that appeared in August 2011 after the tropical storm Irene battered New York: “We have no ‘D’ batteries …,” the new sign read, “but plenty of ‘D’ cup bras! And ‘DD’ and …”

If your family lost its home or a loved one died in Sandy, how would you feel about that? Does it matter that they’re known for their cheeky commentary?

3. How do we think our employees and customers feel about those topics?

When the politics of your company run counter to the politics of your customers, it can get sticky, as the CEO of Eden Foods found when the company filed a lawsuit objecting to covering birth control in the company’s health care plan.

If you feel strongly about something and you know your employees or customers see it differently, would you follow your own beliefs or shape your company’s public stance to align with those others?

What if you’re staying on the sidelines out of respect for employees who have multiple views, but they actually want you to take a political stand? A Harvard Business Review article headlined
Study: Employees Want Employers to Talk Politics suggests that might be the case:

Our data suggests that employees overwhelmingly support the notion of employer-provided issue and political information. Employees not only want more information from their employer about issues that affect their livelihoods, they tend to believe their employers over other sources.

BIPAC conducts extensive biennial studies of employer-employee communications programs through both national polling and surveys within companies deploying such communications. Our Prosperity Project (P2) strategy and platform is the largest and most pervasive business grassroots and advocacy platform in the United States. According to the 2010 National Poll commissioned by BIPAC and performed by Moore Information, Inc., overall, our studies consistently and conclusively show employed voters believe (43% in 2008, 52% in 2010) their employer “should be active in promoting public policies favorable to their industries.” In 2010, 46% of employed voters said they wish their employer “would let him/her know how government and political issues impact his/her job, company and industry.”

4. How will we respond if people question or challenge our motives?

Maybe it’s a kind and generous thing to offer a discount to people affected by a tragedy — maybe a restaurant or hotel runs an ad offering 50 percent off to families affected by the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, for example.

What if someone accuses you of trying to capitalize on tragedy? Would you feel comfortable calmly responding that you’re trying to be supportive, not exploitative?

A social media marketing consultant wrote a blog post warning businesses of the perils of “socialteering” in a disaster — he’s got a vested interest since he and his family evacuated when their power went out for a week post Sandy:

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I’ve seen brands doing Like or retweeting promotions whereby they’ll donate money to the Red Cross et al for each action followers and fans take.

Don’t. Please, don’t.

I’m calling this distasteful phenomenon “socialteering”.

Damaging your brand by trying to capitalize on a tragedy is tasteless. Just donate the damn money and tell your fans that you did. You’ll gain respect, or at least not lose it, for doing the right thing and not acting like complete marketing douchebag.

The positions you take can be part of your business reputation — think Tom’s shoes or Ben and Jerry’s — so consider how your behavior on tragedy or social causes shapes your public perception.

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