How to Avoid a Potentially Polarizing Partnership

On certain issues, such as diversity in the workplace or gender equality, some businesses can’t afford not to take a stand.

For many large companies, this doesn’t carry as much of a risk, as they can be more difficult to boycott if customers don’t agree with their views. According to the CMO Survey conducted by Forbes, only 17% of small businesses feel that it is appropriate for them to take a stance on a social issue.

But what should small business owners do if they have an opportunity to partner with a larger company that has made its polarizing opinions known? Would this be good or bad for their business? 

How to conduct thorough due diligence 

According to the 2017 Edelman Earned Brand Report, more than half of consumers buy or boycott brands based on the brand’s stance on a social issue. Therefore, whenever you are considering a partnership, it is important to understand the risks involved.

Due diligence is extremely important in the current social climate. Rather than taking an overt social stance, some brands may instead invest money, resources, expertise or technology in areas that your customers don’t agree with. Even if your partner isn’t directly or indirectly promoting a social issue, they may have stakeholders who are actively taking a particular stance. 

So, how can you conduct thorough due diligence and know exactly who you’re partnering with? Look at the potential partner’s past and current marketing tactics and social media, including those of their stakeholders, associates, and board of directors. Review the results of those marketing strategies and see how successful they were, how they impacted sales, how the public reacted.

Organizations that spend more than $13,000 quarterly on lobbying activities are required to disclose those activities to the public. Also, try to find out if your potential partners have made contributions to campaigns, if they conduct lobbying activities or if they have made significant investments that support or discourage a particular cause. If the company is publicly owned, this information should be disclosed in their financial statements. 

Ask yourself these questions 

It’s extremely difficult to predict how large groups of consumers will react to a particular decision, especially if you are a small business with limited data and analytics capabilities. That said, take stock of who your stakeholders are and try to gauge their reactions appropriately. For example, a study by PR agency Weber Shandwick found that approximately 51% of millennials are more likely to buy products from companies that have activist CEOs. Sprout Social conducted a similar study that found that 78% of liberals agree that it is important to take a stand on social issues, compared to just 52% of conservatives.

If your business is faced with a potentially polarizing partnership, consider the customers you are trying to reach and ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Is it authentic? Do you really believe in the cause and can you champion it in an authentic way? It will be apparent to your customers if your company musters fake enthusiasm for a cause merely to advance a particular interest (such as a partnership). Brands that are transparent are honest and support causes that align with their core values have the most success making social statements.
  1. Am I willing to commit to this stance in the long term? Once you’ve committed to a particular stance or idea, backing out too quickly can make you appear hypocritical. Furthermore, it creates confusion, suspicion and disengagement among consumers rather than engendering trust and loyalty. If circumstances change and you find that you must change your stance, it will be critical to explain how your thinking has evolved. 
  1. Is the cause important to the activities of my business? If you work in the environmental industry, you might do well to speak about environmental issues to show consumers that you are knowledgeable and care about the environment. Beauty and cosmetics brands have done well promoting body positivity. If the cause is related to your business and will inspire your customers, it might be a good time to speak up. 
  1. Can customers boycott you effectively? If you have a physical location and consumers choose to boycott you, it can be very public. People will notice if their friends or family don’t want to go to a certain restaurant or gas station, for example, and they’ll ask why. If you provide services via the internet, a decrease in customers can be less visible. Depending on your business and how customer-facing you are, consumers will have varying degrees of power to do damage if they disapprove of the partnership you’ve made. 

A good rule of thumb 

When in doubt, check with your employees. Customer service and sales employees spend the most time with your customers directly. They know best how your customers might react to a business decision. At the very least, employees are more likely have a more objective view of your business and might have some valuable input about how a partnership could affect your standing in the community.


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