In a woke world, should companies stay silent on big issues?

Anant Rangaswami, January 20, 2020

Should brands and companies speak up on current issues?

It began with a tweet by Lloyd Mathias. “In today’s ‘activist economy’ a brand’s value and values are becoming intertwined and indistinguishable. Companies will have to navigate this space carefully without seeming uncaring & yet not adversely impacting their business…,” Lloyd wrote, with reference to this article in the Times of India titled “Tech giant, startups in political crossfire with CAA-NRC, JNU violence raising heat

Others waded in to share their views on whether companies and their executives should take public positions and talk on issues such as these.

Lloyd now responded with this. “The ‘staying away’ & not ‘speaking out’ on issues will increasingly be questioned & may not go down well with a new generation of woke consumers,” he said, asking others for their opinions on the subject.

Jessie Paul of Paul Writer had this to say. “Companies can’t have a moral stand, only people can. Generally companies side with the trend that appeals to more of their target audience, and are lagging indicators of public opinion.”

So what is advisable? As a CEO or a CMO, do you think, as Lloyd does, that silence may ‘not go down well”? Or as Jessie Paul does, that companies ‘can’t have a moral stand’ and that ‘only people can’?

Is one of them wrong? Or are both correct, however contrarian that sounds?

To me, both are correct.

A screen grab from Fastrack’s ‘The Closet’ ad

To explain, let’s get one little thing out of the way.

Companies do not think. Companies do not have opinions. Companies do not take stands, moral or otherwise.

It’s the people in the companies who think, who have opinions, who take stands. The moment their thoughts, opinions and stands are in the public domain, depending on the manifestation of the amplification of the thought (in a press release, at a press conference, in an interview, in an advertisement, and so on) and depending on the seniority of the person making the view public and the public perception of the association of the person with the company itself, the thought becomes a ‘company’ view.

The brick and mortar edifice now has a persona and a view – a new dimension that, I would imagine, that the ‘woke consumer’ that Lloyd alludes to takes notice of.

Through their communication in any of the forms that are referred to earlier, a company’s ‘view’ or a brand’s ‘view’ is projected.

For decades, to agree with Lloyd, companies and brands had no view on any issue of any significance. However, companies and brands were always tempted to ride popular waves.

Lux has been doing this for decades through their ‘opinion’, ‘stand’ and ‘view’ on Bollywood, manifest through their use of Bollywood and other film stars in their advertising.

Taj Mahal Tea has done so on classical Indian (predominantly Hindustani classical) music.

MRF is a great example of their ‘view’ on cricket.

Bollywood, Hindustani classical music and cricket? You might argue that this has nothing to do with NRC and CAA and so on, but what I am attempting to do is to underline the principle of whether or not companies should have ‘views’ at all.

They should — and they do.

However, the more polarizing and divisive a topic of discussion is, the more fraught with danger the amplification of the view could be.

Bollywood and cricket and Hindustani classical music are safe areas to have views on.

Then you come to the less safe – such as the ‘opinion’ of Brooke Bond tea when they used Hindu and Muslim neighbours enjoying a cup of tea together and breaking barriers. Or when Fastrack showed their support for the LGBTQ movement through a commercial that showed two girls literally, coming out of a closet.

And, finally you come to the more uncertain – such as CAA or NRC. Do CXOs have views on these issues? Yes, they do. Should they speak out on these issues?

Here’s where it gets tricky. They will speak out once they’ve evaluated the returns and are absolutely certain that there’s a measureable upside. That more consumers and citizens will agree with their stance than will disagree with it.

The Nike-Colin Kaepernick campaign is a recent example of the ‘company’ having a view, as articulated and amplified through their advertising. Nike took a studied punt and won.

On the face of it, it was always a gamble, but the management of Nike (all human beings) believed that Nike (the company, the edifice and the building) would gain significant returns by making their controversial position known to the consumers.

Should Indian ‘companies’ speak out on NRC and CAA?

They will. IF, and that’s a big IF, their calculations tell them that there’s a healthy upside in doing so.

Till then, human beings will stay silent, so that the companies that they manage stay safe.