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Once news of a leaked Supreme Court brief overturning Roe v. Wade came out at the beginning of the week, brand reactions have been swift, and even surprising. Axios reported companies including Citi, Apple, Yelp and Amazon said they would pay for employees to travel to access abortion care when they need to.
Announcements like these—explicit statements of where companies stand on the issue of abortion rights—would have been inconceivable pre-pandemic, pre-murder of George Floyd, pre-Great Resignation. The thought of major corporations actively facilitating a not only personal but politically and religiously polarizing choice would have been unfathomable three years ago.
But increasingly, aligning on environmental, social and governance (ESG) impact goals is foundational to a brand’s communications and even business strategy. According to Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, 58% of consumers buy or advocate for brands, 60% choose a place to work and 80% of investors invest in companies based on alignment with beliefs and values. Your relationship with your entire brand ecosystem could suffer more by not taking any stand.
While it’s laudable that companies have taken such powerful stances to help defray financial burden, the actual impact may be fairly low, given the average age and education of women seeking abortion services may differ from their employee or customer base, or because the majority of them live in blue states with easier access to these services. In these cases, brands are being unnecessarily prescriptive; they could have more impact supporting a related but broader platform.
While few would argue against impact interests such as saving the planet, supporting human rights and ensuring the right to vote, abortion rights is decidedly different because stakeholder values on the issue are so nuanced, divisive and personal. Companies not as resolute as Apple or Amazon to take such a definitive stand in this charged and fearful environment know they must do something; they are not sure what or how to address the issue without alienating a key audience.
Enabling relationship building with stakeholders by galvanizing them around shared purpose is a powerful retention tool. But when stakeholders—employees, customers, partners and investors—may not align, how can you still build trust and affinity? Just as leading brands are starting to broadly embrace and champion DEI and, critically, justice, this is an issue that threatens its very foundations.
So what can brands do?
Zoom out and focus on a broader target where you can provide support. Do not obscure the issue, but rather reframe the focus on who you are supporting. In the case of abortion, perhaps a more appropriate frame for your company is ensuring women’s access to quality, affordable healthcare, which could include abortion services but also maternity care and address women past child-bearing years facing more expensive premiums.
Enable the flow of clear and accurate information to those who need it. Rather than advocate or persuade your stakeholders in any one direction, empower them to think for themselves and take action based on factual information. Causes.com, for example, developed a resource guide on the issue, which includes an explainer video on what happens if Roe v. Wade is overturned, resources for how to get and give help to women in need, abortion facts and a running list of all the resources for people seeking access to abortion care.
Provide neutral, safe and equal space for stakeholders to express their views. Enabling stakeholders to express their views in a safe, moderated environment as well as participate in impact-focused projects are critical to building stakeholder trust. For issues that are not directly related to a company’s ESG or CSR platform but that affect employees, consider giving them open space in the form of paid, unstructured time off to do impact work—for example, enabling employees to take the day to attend a protest. And, critically, be careful to make this paid, unstructured time available to everyone, including those who may not support that cause.
Refrain from stating personal views on behalf of your company. This may go without saying, but companies have been known to conflate expressing personal preferences with taking a brand stand, as Expensify CEO David Barrett did in 2020 when his company sent his plea to 10 million customers to not vote for Donald Trump for president. While Trump did not win the election, I hardly think that his awkwardly calculated risk of alienating misaligned customers who disagreed was the reason for Trump’s loss.
Being a purpose-driven brand is critical but hard to get right in such a complex sociopolitical environment. Roe v. Wade is proving to be a forcing function for brands to prove their intentions of aligning with stakeholder values. It doesn’t have to be a standoff.