Businesses are becoming important social influencers in the social fabric of American society. A recent trend is showing that businesses are going beyond corporate social responsibility expectations by engaging in corporate social advocacy. Businesses and CEOs are taking a stand on controversial socio-political issues such as climate change, gender inequality, gun control, poverty, health care, immigration, social justice, and civil rights. However, engaging in corporate social advocacy efforts have potential benefits and consequences. For this reason, it is important to understand what corporate social advocacy means and how businesses use it to their advantage.
Corporate Social Advocacy vs. Corporate Social Responsibility
While corporate social responsibility (CSR) is closely in line with corporate social advocacy (CSA) they are different concepts. CSR refers to the accountability of companies’ decisions in using their finances, resources, and services to make a positive societal and environmental impact to society. Whereas, CSA refers to companies that take a public stance on socio-political issues. With CSR a company may need to choose products that produce the least harm to the environment or society. For instance, a company may be using plastic in their products, which has devastating effects on the environment. But, may reduce environmental harm by adopting recycling processes to reduce plastic waste.
On the other hand, a company may engage in CSA by promoting the value of recycling products to protect the environment using their social media platforms such as Facebook or Pinterest. The CEO of the company may lead a recycling PSA campaign that inspires other companies to also recycle their products.
CSA and Businesses
Several Fortune 500 businesses have taken the challenge to engage in corporate social advocacy (CSA) through active advertisement campaigns. The following companies were willing to put their reputations on the line for the sake of a socio-political cause or issue.
Nike, for example, took a public stance on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement by promoting Colin Kaepernick, a controversial football athlete who protested against racial injustice by sitting and kneeling during the national anthem. In an advertisement, Nike featured Mr. Kaepernick via social media and it stated, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Taking this stance took the public by surprise and it had mixed support. Some celebrity athletes including LeBron James and Serena Williams supported Nike and Mr. Kaepernick for their social advocacy efforts in promoting social justice and racial equality in support of African American communities. While others criticized the advertisement in support of patriotism and the national anthem using social media outlets. Regardless of the criticism, Robert Cruz reported that after the release of the advertisement, Nike gained approximately $163 million.
Ben & Jerry
Ben & Jerry has also chosen to take a stance in supporting the LGBTQ+ community. In their ice cream pint, it states, “I Dough, I Dough” and it shows two male cows getting married to show support for same-sex marriage. Taking this public stance has enabled customers to gain respect for differences in sexual orientation. And, this stance has worked well in supporting their value of equality and the belief that ice cream can change the world. However, it has also yielded much controversy amongst the anti LGBTQ+ community.
On the other side of the coin, Chick-fil-A has also taken a stance, but against same-sex marriage. Chick-fil-A’s former CEO, Dan Cathy, made public statements from his evangelical Christian perspective against same-sex marriage. And, the company continued its stance against same-sex marriage for several years. This created a backlash from some customers and communities, and dissatisfied customers refused to eat at Chick-fil-A. For instance, a former customer stated in a protest sign, “I used to like Chick-Fil-A…but I love my gay friends more.” The negative publicity intensified and Chick-Fil-A was pressured by society to change its philosophy of only supporting faith-based organizations to also include LGBTQ+ organizations. This inclusion effort has slowly improved the image of Chick-Fil-A.
Firehouse Subs has recently taken a public stance in support of the Florida victims of Hurricane Ian. The company launched a fundraising campaign to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Ian. The company has developed a national commercial that encourages citizens to donate funds to raise funds to support the victims through the Red Cross. Additionally, anytime someone makes a sub purchase, some of those proceeds get donated to first responders who work hard to save people’s lives.
Benefits of Social Advocacy
Corporate Social Advocacy (CSA) can yield several benefits for any given company.
Strengthening Company Values
First, when companies select a socio-political issue to advocate for that mirrors their core values, it can strengthen the overall morale of their employees, stakeholders, and clients. Taking a public stance through the use of social media and news media can make positive values shine through such as ethics, caring, growth, community, and courage. For instance, if a company supports refugees in crisis, this can strengthen the company’s values of compassion and social justice.
Enhancing Branding Reputation
Second, CSA can also enhance branding reputation. When clients and stakeholders witness companies taking a stance on socio-political issues, this will influence their perceptions on the company. When used constructively, CSA can build a positive branding reputation that can strengthen employees and customers’ loyalty and satisfaction.
Attracting New Investors
Third, CSA can also attract new investors. For instance, if a company supports gender pay equality, investors that agree with this socio-political issue may choose to invest in the stocks of the company. And, this, in turn, benefits the company.
Inspiring Societal Change
Fourth, CSA can also inspire societal change. For instance, companies supporting vegetarian efforts might inspire a reduction of meat consumption amongst the public. Similar competitors might follow along and start using plant-based ingredients or offer more vegetarian options.
Risks of Social Advocacy
When engaging in social advocacy (CSA), there are also several risks to take in mind.
Experiencing the Backfire Effect
A risk of using CSA is that taking a stance on a controversial socio-political issue can easily backfire. While the intention may be genuinely good, it might not come across that way. Investors, for instance, might resist the CSA messaging and may choose to stop investing in the company.
Losing Customer Support
Another risk of using CSA is the possibility of losing customer support. For instance, when a company takes a stance on a socio-political issue such as immigration rights, the customers who disagree highly with immigration issues may stop purchasing products or services from that company.
Engaging in CSA can also lead to a company’s loss of reputation. For instance, if the socio-political issue involves harming or harassing a group of individuals, the company’s reputation may be damaged. The company may be negatively perceived for supporting harm or abuse on vulnerable populations or sentient beings.
Lastly, engaging in CSA can also have legal ramifications. For instance, existing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) laws can be used against any company that supports discriminatory practices. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if a company were to stand against a socio-political issue that harms people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or sex, then that company can become liable or at risk of litigation.
Overall, businesses will continue to use CSA as part of their marketing efforts to “speak up” on important issues of their choice. CEOs can communicate their stance in public via advertisements, speeches, or via social media platforms. Or, they may invest in marketing campaigns that will support a socio-political cause. Ultimately, companies will need to become aware of both the benefits and risks of engaging in CSA efforts.