4 ways your company’s brand can speak up digitally on social issues

Digital Marketing

Shana Bull is a marketing educator and digital storyteller, working with wine, food, hospitality businesses, teaching classes on marketing, and freelance writing. Reach her with your questions about digital marketing at shana@shanabull.com, @sharayray on Instagram or at shanabull.com.

Read past columns: nbbj.news/digitalmarketing

For a long time, it has been understood that businesses keep politics from being a front-facing part of their business, either by staying neutral or not saying anything at all.

But that has changed over the course of the past few years.

This shift has been spearheaded by younger customers, employees, and businesses seeing the value in speaking up on social media about social issues that impact their communities and customers.

According to the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, between the time of George Floyd’s death in May and the end of October, around one-third of Fortune 1000 companies responded to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement by making a public statement and/or committing to racial equity within their own workplaces and communities.

Because of the importance of social media in daily lives, companies are utilizing their platforms to jump into the dialogue online. With a multitude of engagement platforms, like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, even if brands didn’t want to be a part of the conversation, they were still being talked about.

Younger consumers desire to spend their money on brands they feel share their values (on either side of the political aisle), and they have become sleuths at finding information online about a business’s shareholders, CEOs, and owners. Any public business has that information out there—and when it comes to small business owners, images on Facebook, get shared pretty quickly if they’re caught doing something in opposition to their brand’s claimed values.

Yeah, but does speaking up increase revenue for businesses?

For wineries, it does.

According to the Silicon Valley Bank State of the U.S. Wine Industry 2021 report, millennial wine-drinkers (people in their late twenties, up to their late thirties) and Generation Z wine-drinkers (age 21 to late-20s) look for brands that share their values of sustainability and making the world a better place through social justice.

“The younger wine consumers now, having lived through the Great Recession and a pandemic, aren’t destined to be consumers who will want to show off their wealth. They too will work for a better lifestyle, but they want to know that those who have wealth are contributing to a better world in some way, and instead of bragging about price, they would rather talk to friends about the good work that a brand and its owners are taking on.”

To connect with millennial or Gen Z consumers, businesses need to stand for something. These generations are more likely than their parents to consider factors like social impact and corporate values in their purchasing decisions.

On top of this, many boomer parents look to their children for advice on wines, restaurants, and consumer goods to purchase. So showcasing and embodying those values isn’t just about selling to a younger generation of shoppers, the impact trickles up as well.

Here are some action items for speaking up on social media.

1. Figure out what your brand values are

When working with any new client, one of the first steps I take is to sit down with them to create a larger marketing strategy (one that doesn’t just apply to social media).

A big component of this is breaking down the story of the brand and pinpointing passions that guide everything they do as a business (i.e., why they got into the industry in the beginning, what they love, what they value, what they would sell if they couldn’t sell their current product).

For many small business owners I have talked to, much of their personal passions translate to their business and many come down to family, community, and a love for their industry.

Ozzy Jimenez and Christian Sullberg co-own Moustache Baked Goods in Healdsburg, Pastry Annex in Windsor, and Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Shop in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. They have become vocal supporters of their community. In the last year, Ozzy joined the Healdsburg City Council as vice mayor. Christian is the vice-chair at Positive Images, a support and advocacy group for Sonoma County’s LGBTQIA+ community.

Whether it’s donating desserts, giving their time during the fires, working with nonprofits and local governments, or speaking up on issues that matter to them, the two have shown just how important it is for small businesses to use their voice and engage with their audience’s values. Their customers love them for everything they stand for in the community and shop with them because of those values (having delicious desserts doesn’t hurt as well).

Ozzy said “customers want to know that a brand they love can also be responsive to community changes and lead when necessary. As strong players in the competitive world they want to know that your brand is doing more than just making a profit.”

By focusing on your shared passions, you can make true connections with your customers and become an advocate for them.

2. Use social media to showcase your passions

Take a look at current marketing efforts across multiple platforms to see how you are or are not relating these brand passions to your audience. Make changes as needed to your social media, website, newsletter, in-store marketing, PR, and sales marketing efforts.

It’s important to have a company-wide understanding of what your brand stands for, both for the benefit of all of your employees, and also to avoid tone-deaf, inauthentic posts on social media.

Malia Anderson, CEO and wardrobe stylist at Style by Malia, has some advice for brands: “Be honest. Say what you need to say. It’s better to say, ‘I don’t want to mess up the message’ than to say nothing. Keep it simple. Black Lives Matter, full stop. Don’t ‘market’ your support. Support causes that matter to your brand. And do it without turning that cause into this month’s marketing campaign.”

In other words, walk the walk when it comes to your values.

Businesses like BREW Coffee and Beer House, a craft cafe in downtown Santa Rosa, show their support of BLM and LGBTQIA+ with signs in their windows, events welcoming these communities, and social media posts sharing their values (Noble Folk does as well).

Owners, Alisse Cottle and Jessica Borrayo, have always embraced their openness to be humans running a business. And their customers appreciate that they express their values, and seek them out because of this.

3. Back up your words with actions

Simply sharing a rainbow logo or a black square on Instagram isn't enough. Your company should also take meaningful action in person when it comes to what they value.

Alexandra Fox is the founder and owner of Food & Farm Tours, a tour company that takes guests through family farms in Sonoma and Marin counties, raising awareness about the importance of sustainable agricultural practices.

She started the company in 2012 and has become a vocal supporter of small businesses, immigrant rights (farming and otherwise), and the preservation of the farming community. She uses her Instagram handle @foodandfarmtours to connect with over 22,000 fans, sharing gorgeous pictures of the Sonoma and Marin coasts, behind-the-scenes of local farms, food and wine shots, and messages about equality and showing up for BIPOC farmers and workers.

She agrees that it is in bad taste for a brand to vocalize support for a cause on social media while having a company culture that doesn’t align with their promoted values.

“I would like to see fewer empty words and more action that back up the justice they speak about wanting to uphold. I would like to see Black voices amplified and lifted up, hiring practices changed, cultures shifted, donations made, and continued and sustained effort for the long haul — not just the week when it was trending,” says Fox.

In a world where there are thousands of wineries, restaurants, hotels, and food producers making similar products, what makes a brand stand out is its values and willingness to act on them.

4. Stand strong in the face of adversary

Over the past few months, the owners of BREW have found some hateful comments on their social media content with images of BLM signage. This appearance of hate in the Santa Rosa community just made them more determined to keep sharing their story.

According to Cottle, “Lately, (Brew) has been threatened with real violence. Until recently, people who didn't agree with our views or our voice left us alone. Now they are coming around, targeting our building and our staff.”

The BREW staff currently walks a fine line of balancing the ability to stand up to bullies, being authentic to who they are, and inspiring others to do the same -- while also making sure not to incite more attacks on the cafe, the customers, and the team.

“We want the marginalized people who have found Brew to be a safe haven, to continue to feel safe here,” says Cottle.

“By speaking about (the backlash) publicly we are supported even more,” she says. “We have people looking out for us and if I didn't voice what backlash we were getting the city and the community would stay in their privilege of thinking, “this doesn't happen here."

Note from the author: I echo Cottle’s statement and encourage businesses who have received backlash to reach out to each other, and (if they feel safe enough) share publicly what is happening. The North Bay community has been through a lot, but by aligning your brand values with your business practices & social media marketing efforts, you can make true connections with people who share the same ideals and turn them into loyal customers — while also making a positive social impact.

Digital Marketing

Shana Bull is a marketing educator and digital storyteller, working with wine, food, hospitality businesses, teaching classes on marketing, and freelance writing. Reach her with your questions about digital marketing at shana@shanabull.com, @sharayray on Instagram or at shanabull.com.

Read past columns: nbbj.news/digitalmarketing

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