Should Cannabis Brands Take a Stand on Social Issues?

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“Keep politics out of the office” has been a phrase used by managers for years. But is it still the best course of action? Rather, is it even still possible? Most big brands traditionally walked on eggshells when it came to hot-button issues. But today’s hyperconnectivity through social media may be quickly changing that. Cision, a leading public relations and earned media software company took a deep dive into this issue in its new report titled “Should Your Brand Take A Stand?”

Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience may seem like simple advice but that does not make it any less important. It is surprising how many brands miscalculated their audience composition. As Cision states in its report, if your audience is more of a “stick to sports” crowd then it may not be beneficial to jump right into a divisive issue, especially if it is not familiar territory. 


However, Cision also found the public is moving away from a “stick to sports” mentality. Roughly two-thirds of global consumers base their decisions about which brands to buy or avoid based on their social stances. Cision found 53 percent of surveyed consumers expected brands to become involved in at least one social issue that is not directly linked to their industry. Although, brands must walk a fine line or they risk being viewed as opportunistic. Approximately 56 percent of respondents also claimed that brands overuse social issues as “marketing ploys.”

Millennials seem poised to put the final nail in the “stick to sports” coffin. Cision highlighted data from 5W Public Relations which found 83 percent of millennials believe they should be purchasing from brands with values that align with their own. Just over 75 percent indicated they believe companies’ chief executive officers should actively use their position to address social concerns.

To accompany a 2019 Edelman brand trust survey, which Cision references, Richard Edleman wrote a supplementary essay. In it, he touched on a key issue of life in a consumer-based economy and sums up how important it is for brands to really think about the type of relationship they have with their customers.

“My purchase of products each week makes more of a difference than my vote every four years in the broader debate on issues such as tolerance,” Edelman said.

The good and the bad

The Cision report provides both examples of brands getting it right when taking a stand and when they missed the mark. It highlighted Ben and Jerry’s decision to take a prominent stand against police brutality and white supremacy immediately following the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin. Ben and Jerry’s did not impulsively send out the tweet about George Floyd and it was not just random luck that they got it right.

Ben and Jerry’s has spent years articulating the brand’s worldview. The company has commented on many social debates in the past including marriage equality. Customers who would be turned off by its stance on George Floyd and Black Lives Matter likely would have taken their business elsewhere long ago. In fact, with the customer base Ben and Jerry’s has cultivated, it may have alienated some customers by not commenting on the murder of George Floyd.

Cision also highlights Gillette, a maker of razors and shaving products for men. The brand’s  “We Believe” campaign ran during the weeks leading up to the 2019 Super Bowl. In the ad, Gillette highlighted the phrase “the best a man can be,” a play on its traditional slogan, “the best a man can get.” The campaign depicted scenes that highlighted sexist behavior including bullying, sexism, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity, and challenged men to do better. The ad was viewed as highly controversial and has accumulated more than 1.6 million dislikes on Youtube.

Gillette may have been well-intentioned, and its message to end toxic masculinity surely is a noble cause, but consumers seem to want a track record of supporting relevant social issues. If Gillette had been previously associated with promoting gender equality, the ad may have landed a bit better. Instead, many viewed the ad as an attempt to win back customers from emerging companies like Dollar Shave Club and Harrys. 

Of course, the company also risked alienating another swath of customers—those who were outraged because they are sexist and were not keen on Gillette calling it out.

What about the cannabis industry?

The cannabis industry may be unique when it comes to the dynamic between brands and activism. Legalized cannabis was a movement before it was an industry and while there are some who may just be in it for profit, the activist wing remains strong. The industry still has its own internal issues to work out—especially when it comes to diversity and opportunity for all—and the war on drugs, which has devastated many communities, is far from over. We spoke with several cannabis brands to get their take on whether or not cannabis brands should take a stand on social issues. Here’s what they had to say:

“At Hervé, we strongly believe that it is a brand’s responsibility to take a stand on social issues. The cannabis industry, in particular, is one that was built on the injustices of the war on drugs, imprisoning and impoverishing millions of people of color who still are disproportionately affected today.” Sam Rose, manager of marketing and development, Hervé.

“Racial and social injustice is deeply embedded within cannabis, and as industry leaders, it is our responsibility to take a stand and use our position for good.” —Vanessa Chui, director of employee engagement, LeafLink.

“From an employer standpoint, I think it’s important for businesses to take stands on social issues. It is important for your employees to know where you stand as that is often a determining factor in if someone accepts a job with your company or not.” —Karson Humiston, founder and chief executive officer, Vangst.

“I think younger consumers expect more from the companies they support, and it isn’t enough to just publicly state your values and take no further action. While I don’t think brands need to jump into every social debate, particularly ones in which they have little relevance, companies shouldn’t let the fear of a few angry customers stop them from speaking out when it is important.”  —Heidi Genrich, senior vice president of marketing, Ganja Goddess Delivers.

As an industry, it’s our responsibility to redress the past of unjust laws and policies surrounding the prohibition of cannabis. Companies and brands must make clear commitments to support advocacy, equity, and social action.” —Esther Song, chief marketing officer, Canndescent.

Where are we now?

Michael Jordan, who is so iconic that he is both a man and a brand, once said, “Republicans buy shoes too,” referencing his perceived silence on social issues to protect his business interests. Jordan maintains that the comment was made in jest while on a bus with his teammates. Even if Jordan did not mean much by the comment, his infamous quote seems to be from a bygone era. 

Last week showed just how far we’ve come since the 1990s and it seems the luxury of silence may be gone for brands. The issue of voter’s rights versus voter restrictions found its way to the doorsteps of Coca-Cola and Home Depot, two companies that likely never anticipated the day they would have to publicly comment on election laws. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce has come out publicly against provisions in SB 241 and HB 531 which aim to restrict voting access. Civil liberties groups lobbied the two mega-corporations to state their opposition to the new voter restriction bills in Georgia.

It appears Coca-Cola and Home Depot decided they could not simply stick to sports and sided with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.