A national debate over civility erupted after Stephanie Wilkinson, a co-owner of a Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her premises. However, that wasn’t the only consequence of the incident.
In its aftermath, restaurant owners in various parts of America whose businesses had the words “red hen” in their name were deluged with a storm of angry reactions — even though their businesses were totally separate entities.
“In the age of the activist politicized consumer, there are no safe sidelines,” commented CMO Inc. founder Peter Horst, who led the marketing teams at Hershey, Capital One, General Mills and other major companies.
For example, Greyhound and Microsoft “are being dragged into the public eye because of their role in cooperating with ICE and border agents,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“It’s now a near-daily occurrence for companies to find themselves caught up in an overnight brand crisis,” Horst said. “With so little trust in government to fix a broken system, consumers now expect brands to play a role and put their values on display by helping to make society better.”
Brands increasingly get contaminated by controversies, even when they are innocent bystanders, observed Michael Solomon, a professor of marketing at the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University’s in Philadelphia.
Blame it on millennials: “One reason is that consumers, especially younger ones, want to know a company’s back story before they will link to it,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
Companies often respond to controversies by taking a stand:
- Four major airlines announced they would not accommodate any federal government requests to carry immigrant children separated from their parents in connection with the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on undocumented border crossings;
- At least 20 companies pulled their ads from conservative host Laura Ingraham’s show after she mocked a Parkland School shooting survivor; and
- Tesla, Mozilla and other major brands halted their Facebook activity following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Taking a stand is one option, Solomon said; another is avoiding the controversy outright.
The first option lets a company make a statement about its values, which is a “risky but potentially profitable move,” he observed. SMB businesses “often fall into the second category” and need to stay neutral if possible.
Online businesses should carefully select what issues and causes they align with, cautioned Deb Gabor, CEO of Austin, Texas-based brand strategy consultancy Sol Marketing.
“Make sure the value and beliefs expressed by the people involved in that issue or cause align with those held by your own organization,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
However, there are other options.
“Many organizations think the choice is simply between putting their head in the sand versus jumping into a political battle,” noted CMO Inc.’s Horst. “There is a range of ways brands can engage, depending on their business, their customers, and their appetite for risk.”
Preparation Is Key
All online businesses, whether they’re selling their own branded products and services on a site they own, or reselling other companies’ branded goods, “should consider themselves brands,” advised Sol Marketing’s Gabor.
A brand “acts as a magnet that’s designed to attract customers who share values and beliefs similar to those of the organization,” she remarked. It is “more than just logo, tagline, and corporate colors. It’s a relationship — or the sum total of all the emotional connections that customers have with it — facilitated by its engagements with them across multiple touchpoints.”
Those touchpoints include in-person encounters, advertisements, marketing and even online transactions, Gabor noted. “Today, that all extends to social media sites, where customers may have nontransactional engagements with the company’s posts and content.”
When an online business stakes its claim to an idea by aligning with or distancing itself from it, it puts the brand’s values on public display, she said.
That brand identity is a fragile thing, because it’s “the part of the brand that you control, but your customers own how they perceive you,” Gabor pointed out.
Things to Do
Following are some steps e-commerce businesses can take, based on Gabor’s recommendations:
- Document core values and beliefs;
- Share values with all employees and partners — print them on posters for display in the office, or print them on the back of company name badges, for example;
- Ensure that employees are screened, hired, fired and incentivized based on the company’s core values;
- Have a detailed social media policy in place stating when, how and on what platforms employees can communicate as an agent of the company, along with the protocol for addressing and responding to inbound commentaries or inquiries;
- Put practices in place to ensure employees can understand your key messages and know how much leeway they can take with sharing them; and
- Remind employees of your social media policies and protocols when a controversy erupts.
No matter what stance a company takes it will “rub at least one segment of its customers or prospects the wrong way,” remarked Mukul Krishna, global practice head for digital media at Frost & Sullivan.
“The key is to have policies in place that will remove ambiguity further downstream among the rank and file,” he told the E-Commerce Times, to ensure “consistency in using that policy.”
Expecting the Unexpected
Even if they have “very specific internal policies regarding what’s permissible for employees to post on social media,” companies can be caught out, Haub School of Business’ Solomon warned.
For example, some fast food restaurants were hit by employees who posted objectionable photos on social media.
In such cases, “it’s vital to take decisive action and to own the problem very quickly,” Solomon advised. “The longer it festers without an authoritative response from the company, the bigger the problem will become.”