Taking sides: Retailers speak out about same sex marriage

businessAs Australians have their say on same sex marriage, the business world is chiming in. Many retailers have voiced their support of marriage equality over the past few months and run campaigns encouraging customers to participate in the survey, if not urging them to vote yes.

Wesfarmers, Myer, David Jones, Ebay, JB Hi-Fi, The Good Guys, Target, H&M, Bakers Delight, Bonds, Kikki.K, Mecca and Temple & Webster are just a few of the 800-plus corporate organisations listed on the Equality campaigns website, with many more posting signage in-store and on social media in support of marriage equality.

In recent weeks, fashion chain Gorman gave away 15,000 love is love t-shirts featuring artwork by Monika Forsberg to anyone who could prove they were enrolled to vote in the marriage equality survey, and General Pants Co. offered 20 per cent off in-store purchases for a limited time to customers who could prove they were enrolled to vote. Meanwhile, online retailer The Iconic pledged to donate all proceeds from sales of its own love is love t-shirt to Beyond Blue, a mental health support group in favour of marriage equality.

Cosmetics retail, Lush, plastered post yes signage in its windows throughout the month of September and shared additional collateral about the survey with customers in-store.

Natasha Ritz, brand communications manager at Lush, tells IRW it was the retailers longest running campaign.

Weve actually run two campaigns over the last two to three months. In the months before the postal survey went ahead, we pushed really hard in support of the court case to stop the postal vote, Ritz says.

The survey says

While some retailers like Lush have a long history of taking a stand on social and political issues, many businesses in the past have kept quiet, rather than risk alienating some of their employees or consumers. But the same sex marriage survey appears to be a watershed moment, with dozens upon dozens of retailers making public statements in support of the issue.

Many say they believe its simply the right thing to do. That view is undoubtedly made easier by the broader shift towards transparency and authenticity in business, which younger consumers in particular are driving. This is apparent in the findings of a recent survey commissioned by Hotwire PR, which aimed to uncover whether Australians think brands should voice their opinion on political and social issues.

Out of more than 1,500 Australian consumers aged between 18-74 surveyed, over half (52 per cent) admitted to making purchasing decisions based on a brands stance on social or political issues, with 16 per cent saying they are more likely to buy from a brand if its views align with their own.

However, this figure varies depending on age. Around 20 per cent of those aged 18-24 years old are more likely to buy from a brand that shares the same views to them, while only 13 per cent of 55-64-year-olds are more likely to do so. When it comes to same sex marriage, Hotwire found that about a quarter (23 per cent) of all respondents want to know a brands stance on the issue.

The data may not be overwhelming yet, but it indicates which way the wind is blowing, according to Hotwire Australias country manager, Mylan Vu.

With more brands joining political discussions on topics from fair trade to racism, its important to recognise how this will resonate with consumers and their purchasing decisions. While more senior generations are preferring brands stay out of political debates, millennials our future business, economic and political leaders want brands to engage more and will actually change how they spend their money accordingly, Vu says.

Brands without a stance on core political and social issues need to get off the fence if theyre interested in engaging with and making money from future generations.

Avoiding pitfalls

But while an increasing number of businesses may believe taking a stand on social and political issues is the right thing to do both morally and economically its not without pitfalls. Retailers will very likely lose some customers who do not agree with their views, and will need to decide how to respond to negative comments on social media. This can create further backlash if not done right.

When former Woolworths CEO Roger Corbett said he opposed same-sex marriage last month on the ABCs current affairs program, 7.30, some shoppers took to the supermarkets Facebook page to express their outrage. The retailer had actually come out in support of marriage equality, but still found it itself engaging with disgruntled customers on social media.  

Samantha Tran, a business development executive at the creative agency Mo Works, tells IRW it can be difficult for businesses to find the right balance between offering a human response and toeing the company line in these situations.

What really matter is how a brand respond to customers, she says. Too stiff and brands risk doing more harm than good; too personal and their message may not reach enough people.

Professor Ian O. Williamson, pro vice-chancellor and dean of commerce at Victoria Business School, says this is to be expected. His research shows that firms that support HR diversity practices are sometimes seen as unattractive to majority groups, even as they become more attractive to minorities. But theres a simple solution: explain the reasoning behind the decision.

In particular, we found that explanations which linked the practice to enhance firm innovation and allowing firms to better serve a broad set of customers can help mitigate negative outcomes for some groups, Williamson tells IRW.       

Stand for something

On the whole, however, Williamson says the days of brands being everything to everyone are long gone.

Quite frankly, what you do and what you provide may not shape your market as much as who you are and what you stand for. Firms have to accept that it is highly unlikely they can be the one-stop shop for everyone. No-one will buy from you if you dont stand for something, but standing for something pretty much means someone will not want to buy from you.

Indeed, Eloise Monaghan, CEO of lingerie retailer Honey Birdette, says she didn’t consider the potential for backlash – or conversely, increased sales – in her business’ decision to support same sex marriage. In August, Honey Birdette ran an ‘equality’ flash mob in the Sydney CBD to encourage young people to register to vote and support marriage equality

“I’m not that calculated a person, but I’ve had it up to here with this conservative movement…Would I usually put my views on politics out there? No, but [I did] because I’m in that situation myself and many of my friends are,” she tells IRW.   



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