As arguments in the Supreme Court’s review of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act wrapped up this week, the explosion of brands taking to social media to express support for same-sex marriage was just getting started.
Among the brands posting versions of the red-and-white equals-sign image of the Human Rights Campaign, denoting support for the cause, were Bud Light
, Absoult, Smirnoff
, Norwegian Cruise Line
, Kimpton Hotels
, Martha Stewart Living
, and Orbitz
. Kenneth Cole
crafted its own image.
These brands are taking a stand on the issue despite the considerable fallout from Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy’s anti-gay-marriage remarks last year. Many communicators said Cathy made a mistake by weighing in on the issue at all, thereby alienating potential customers.
If Cathy’s outspokenness on such a divisive issue was deemed a misstep, then why are so many brands on the other side of the issue eager to speak up now? Aren’t they potentially turning customers against them? The risk could be worth it, some communications experts say.
Though there are some very vocal opponents of gay marriage on social media—look at a few of the comments on Bud Light’s equals-sign image to get an idea—a lot of the online sentiment on the issue Monday and Tuesday was supportive, according to Kevin Green, senior vice president of strategy at Digital Influence group. Only about 10 percent has been negative, while 57 percent has been positive.
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management says those figures make brands feel safe taking a stand.
“These brands have joined what appears to be the winning side of this issue, which is just smart issues management,” he says.
Bernstein theorizes that brand decisions to post equals-sign images were as much about marketing as they were about sincere adherence to the cause.
“When the debate became national, it started to make sense for brands to get involved to the extent that the demographics associated with their position matched up well with their customer demographics,” he says.
Gerald Baron, principal at Agincourt Strategies, agrees that the mainstream of American culture seems to be solidly behind same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t kept debate out of the boardroom.
“I read recently where a shareholder of Starbucks complained that Starbucks’ pro-gay-marriage stand was hurting the bottom line,” he says. “Chairman Howard Shultz replied that if the shareholder thought he could get a better return than the 38 percent that Starbucks was providing, he should take his money elsewhere.”
Almost all the conversation about gay marriage that is happening online is taking place on Twitter, according to Green.
“Facebook appears to be the social network of choice for those maintaining silent solidarity,” he says. “Because most of people’s Facebook networks consist of friends, family, and like-minded people, when someone posts the red equal sign, it’s met with support through ‘likes’ but typically not debate.”
That could be why some brands are chiming into the debate on Facebook while staying out of it
on Twitter, though quite a few brands did post their images on Twitter as well as Facebook.
New Yorker columnist Matt Buchanan notes
that posting a profile image doesn’t exactly equate to “high-risk” activism; in fact, it’s essentially a passive act. So although the total effect of millions of avatars may have an impact, a brand’s posting one isn’t all that risky.
Even so, Baron worries that brands taking a stand on issues may cause further alienation in the culture at large.
“Will we have restaurants where one side of an issue goes and other restaurants where the other side goes?” he asks. “Will some beer be seen as socially acceptable and another not?”
People don’t seem to have a clear idea of whether that’s the society they’d like to live in or not. According to a survey from the Global Strategy Group
, about 70 percent of adults want businesses to take action to address issues facing society, but 56 percent also said it’s inappropriate for companies to take political sides if the issue doesn’t have anything to do with their specific industry.
Only about 31 percent said it was appropriate for companies to take stands on social issues such as abortion and, yes, same-sex marriage.
However, Baron says Bud Light, Orbitz, and others probably don’t have too much to worry about—because they’re taking a passive stand.
“Clearly those lining up behind gay marriage and gay rights have stuck a finger in the air, found which way the wind is blowing, and are deciding it in their best interests,” he says. “I don't think these are stands based on beliefs or principles, such as that taken by Chick-fil-A's COO, but more a matter of what's best for the business. If it were otherwise, they would have taken these stands much earlier when there was far more at risk in doing so.”
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.