Managers often have challenges understanding how to position their brands and companies when contentious public issues find them. More interesting in some ways are companies whose managers seek out contentious issues. It is very hard to measure the net impact of having a contentious social mission, experiments are hard to run, but it is worth pointing out that there are definite upsides.
Having a mission beyond making money gives a coherence to firms both internally and in the public’s imagination. Chik-fil-a has a much clearer identity than many firms and helps reinforce this by being so up front about its controversial values. This clearly has a potential downside, I for one would never visit a Chik-fil-a, but the relevant question isn’t “are there downsides”? Of course there are. The key question is: “are the upsides larger than the downsides?” My guess is that in a politically fractured world having a controversial social mission is a way to secure the support of a group of consumers and it can be a net positive.
Of course one can have a social mission that pretty much everyone agrees with, maybe something with puppies. There is nothing wrong with them but adopting such issues can seem fake. If the cause was clearly survey tested and the least offensive choice opted for it doesn’t seem like a heatfelt commitment. It is a much clearer signal that the managers of the firm really care about the cause it if the choices made annoy some people.
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream adopt progressive social causes, e.g., immigrant rights, climate change. The business idea is that even if they lose 50% of potential customers they can sell three times as much to those who do buy. It is a brave choice but maybe “[p]issing off some of your customers is one of the smartest decisions you can make.” (Steimer, 2017, page 29)
I have absolutely no prediction ability so there is no need to believe me but my guess is that we will see more controversial social missions in the future. I have a choice about where I buy my margarine/trousers/TVs/cookies etc… why should I give my money to a firm that doesn’t share my values?
Read: Sarah Steimer (2017) How to Build a Global Campaign Sundae, Marketing News, August, pages 43-49