Profound changes in cultural sentiment are shifting the role business plays in addressing social issues at an accelerating rate. Companies across industries are stepping up and taking stances on issues typically considered outside their realm. Brands have traditionally looked to loyal customers and employees to advocate on their behalf. Today, however, the tides have turned, and social media has enabled people to insist that brands advocate for the things that matter most to them before stepping up to do the same.

The number of brands that are taking activist stances on topics in the public debate continues to grow. In an increasingly divided political climate, government policy is increasing, rather than decreasing, the call for companies to have a moral compass and behave responsibly as active citizens do. More and more, the public is demanding that leadership brands declare a point of view on social justice, civil liberties, the environment, and most recently gun control.

By nature, taking a public stance is polarizing. Not everyone defines doing good in the same way. To minimize backlash and not violate trust with customers, employees, and other stakeholders, a company therefore must only takes a stand that reflects its purpose, values, and, perhaps most importantly, its operational practices.

Leadership and responsibility have become inseparable

Beginning as early as December 2011, my three years of research into brand leadership, good corporate citizenship, and favorite brands, which ultimately led to my five-step model of Brand Citizenship, demonstrated that leadership and responsibility are intertwined. In my research, Step 3 of the model - Responsibility: behave fairly and treat employees, suppliers and the environment well - emerged as the pivot point between being a brand that provides solutions to personal ME problems and one that addresses generalized WE worries about the economy, the problems in the world, and the planet. Participants identified issues related to civil justice, social liberties, and the environment as safe territory for brands to take up positions. Simultaneously they told us that brands that behave transparently and sincerely encourage us to bring out the best of ourselves and progress society. Importantly, they considered these brands leaders.

Four years later in June 2015, legacy and newer brands alike, such as American Airlines, BuzzFeed, Honey Maid, Ketel One, MasterCard, Spotify, Target, and Uber, flew the rainbow flag for marriage equality. Later that same year, Airbnb, Alcoa, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Monsanto, Walmart, and many others openly signed President Obama’s climate change pledge

In November 2016, the Breitbart controversy created a tipping point. Allstate, EarthLink, Kellogg’s, Nest, Target, and Warby Parker pulled ads from the alternative-right media platform because of strong racist and anti-Semitic views. Steve Bannon, who became chief strategist to President Donald Trump after serving as his campaign’s chief executive, was a founding board member for Breitbart News. While companies that supported the Supreme Court’s decision about gay marriage and Obama’s climate change pledge were generally praised, those that ended their relationships with Breitbart News, most notably Kellogg’s, faced repercussions.

The turning point

On November 30, 2016, Breitbart News posted an inflammatory article with the headline, “#DumpKelloggs: Breakfast Brand Blacklists Breitbart, Declares Hate for 45,000,000 Readers.” Labeling the “war against Breitbart News as bigoted and anti-American,” Editor in Chief, Alexander Marlow, angrily called for readers to sign a petition urging people to boycott all of Kellogg’s products.

Many others – including those who were anti-Breitbart – thought Kellogg’s and the other brands were behaving insincerely. After all, Breitbart News’s values hadn’t troubled these brands until after Steve Bannon was named then President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist. For some, Kellogg’s decision was less about the brand’s absolute stance and more about the company’s inconsistent behavior. They questioned whether or not the brand was behaving sincerely or leveraging current events for their own benefit.

Brand activism grows increasingly political

The number of brands taking overt political positions grew throughout 2017. A number of tech giants expressed opposition to the Trump administration’s controversial immigration ban, which potentially impacted their work forces directly. Known for democratizing the hospitality industry and valuing equality, Airbnb went further than most setting a goal to provide housing for 100,000 people in need and contributed $4 million to the International Rescue Committee in support of displaced people worldwide. And the ride hailing app Lyft surpassed its direct competitor and industry leader, Uber, in Apple’s App Store after Uber did not participate in related protests and a taxi strike at JFK airport. Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union as it denounced the ban and the hashtag #DeleteUber trended on social media.

Former New York City mayor and business leader Michael Bloomberg has spearheaded the fight for the US to meet its Paris accord greenhouse gas targets. Across industries, corporations including Burton Snowboards, Apple, Campbell Soup, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Target, and Timberland, signed an open letter, “We Are Still In,” alongside elected officials such as mayors and governors. The letter publicly declared their support to meet commitments despite President Trump’s decision to pull out of it.

While immigration and climate change clearly reflect the areas participants in my research originally identified as safe for activism, most recently, in the wake of the Parkland, Fla, school shooting, a growing number of companies have taken more bold stances on gun control. Having the power to spend their hard-earned dollars elsewhere, consumers are being more successful in applying social media pressure to get companies to act than gun control advocates have been lobbying politicians.

With online petitions urging companies to #BoycottNRA circulating and 66% of US voters participating in a Quinnipiac poll stating they support stricter gun laws – up from 47% in 2015 – the pressure to disassociate from the NRA has mounted. First National Bank of Omaha pledged that it would not renew a Visa card co-branded with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Delta, United Airlines, MetLife Inc., Hertz, and Best Western each plan to terminate special discounts and benefits for NRA members.

On the other side of the issue, as it affirmed it ‘opposes assault rifles being in the hands of civilians’, FedEx stated it would continue to offer NRA member discounts and two-day delivery for guns because doing otherwise would be discriminatory. And Apple, Amazon, and Roku continue to stream the NRA TV channel on their platforms. Although the jury is still out on whether or not staying aligned with the NRA will be erode brand equity or hurt profits, in the short term people – including survivors of the Parkland tragedy themselves – continue to use social media to out these companies.

Ideals are a logical next step in segmentation

Over time, marketers have evolved from targeting audiences for their products and services using demographics to psychographics. Today many micro-target customers based on people’s lifestyle aspirations and values. With the populace so divided, it seems logical that people now expect brands they buy to also embrace their ideals. Over my three years of qualitative and quantitative research with more than 6000 people, many participants consistently told us that they felt better about themselves when they bought brands that “did good.” And that they questioned their brand choices when they learned a brand wasn’t behaving responsibly.

The brands we choose are extensions of who we are. They act as badges for what we are about to other people. The acid test of a satisfying brand relationship is rooted not in grand gestures or even in social chatter or digital interaction. Rather it stems from thoughtful, empathic actions and small, meaningful deeds that both improve our daily lives and help us to feel as though we belong to a group of like-minded people. Step 4 – Community – of the model of Brand Citizenship reflects the ways brands physically, virtually and emotionally rally communities of like-minded people and influence our behavior, often for the better and to fix social problems.

Sincerity wins trust and builds leadership

As distrust of politicians and longstanding institutions heightens, people are accepting less than ever at face value. They readily see through crafted messaging, political rhetoric, and marketing hype. Like a sincere person, a sincere brand openly shares its point of view on the world. It does not aggrandize itself or take advantage of the latest news cycle. To minimize the risk of violating trust – the starting point of good of Brand Citizenship—it’s essential that a brand only takes a stance that aligns with its purpose, values, and operating principles and policies. As the pressure increases for companies to become active citizens addressing social challenges that politicians are not effectively solving, the brands that take stances sincerely through their actions—not only their communications—will be touted as leaders.