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4 Genuine Ways Your Brand Strategy Can Adapt To Social Change

A communications specialist gives tips on advocacy positioning for your cannabis company.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

With the rise of protests across the world sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, it’s evident that remaining neutral is no longer an option for many brands and companies. This is especially true of the cannabis industry, which is built on a decades-long continuing history, in which black consumers and producers are disproportionately criminalized and often violently arrested. 

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According to the ACLU’s report Marijuana Arrests by the Numbers, “Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias.”

The public is demanding brand responses to racial injustice so vociferously that AdAge began keeping track, highlighting what brands are saying and if they’re actually following through with action. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the importance of advocacy and social responsibility in the cannabis industry. In this article, I hope to provide guidance on finding your voice and position as a socially advocating company, and avenues for turning that voice into an actionable response.

1. Have a style guide and public relations plan ready

When crafting communication that requires precision, having a protocol in place for words and topics that are potentially contentious will make all the difference.

The simplest way to manage words with stigma is to address them head-on in a company style guide. The style guide exists for brand consistency in communication; it outlines the words/phrases you do and do not use as a company, as well as general brand tone. In every industry, but especially cannabis, it’s essential to recognize the history that entrenches some terms and then make definitive style decisions around usage.

For example, using the term “cannabis” instead of “marijuana” is often a measured decision. Weed Times posed the question earlier this year, “Is It Politically Correct or Racist To Say The Word ‘Marijuana’?”, but the debate is far from new, and has recently spread to more uncertain terms, like “black market.” Without reflection on connotation, businesses risk missing the mark and even causing offense, like GreenTec Holding’s recent contentious BLK MKT campaign

Having a style guide doesn’t just allow you to “stay out of trouble” as a brand, it also makes the process of crafting careful communications simpler, allowing for a quicker brand response going forward.

Related: Why the Word 'Recreational' Should Be Retired

2. Be genuine, goal-oriented, and take action

Being genuine is likely one of the more important takeaways in this post.  As Vox covers in their recent article, “Companies are saying Black Lives Matter. Consumers think they can do more,” consumers don’t want empty solidarity pledges: they want donations and real policy change. 

When choosing to advocate as a brand, it’s important to either be all-in or not post at all, and avoid taking half-measures. Nike, for example, is experiencing a huge upswing in social media engagement surrounding its statement on commitment to the black community. The company is being lauded for addressing institutionalized racism internally and societally, and while having its detractors, Nike has shown effectively how a multileveled, complex social issue can be addressed multilaterally by a brand. 

On the other hand, as the Washington Post recently covered, big corporations that simply say “Black Lives Matter” without acknowledging their own past failings and plans for actionable change are falling flat with consumers.  

Part of being genuine is transparency. By taking actions such as creating timelines and proposed policy changes internally and then sharing publicly, a sense of accountability and transparency will be created. A vital part of this process is gathering feedback from employees and audiences alike, and being willing to engage in difficult dialogues. 

Remember: being genuine, transparent, and setting real accountable goals is a nonnegotiable necessity of advocacy positioning.

3. Take meaningful action

A recent poll by Morning Consult, “Brands Are Speaking Out on Black Lives Matter. How Are Consumers Going to Respond?” is a fascinating read in general, but has this particularly noteworthy takeaway: “Among all adults, as well as both black and white consumers, more people than not said that if a company declined to make an official statement about the protests, that would cause them to see a brand in a less favorable light.”

It may not always make sense for your brand to jump at every social advocacy positioning opportunity, and may, in fact, come off as disingenuous. An all-male C-suite post about gender equality, for example, isn’t likely to be received well in the wake of the #MeToo movement. However, if the same company responds to women’s history month by launching an internal investigation into diversifying their own office, it could bring welcome social media coverage and dialogue.

4. Work together and have a bigger impact

An important final note about social advocacy and justice: You don’t have to take on the task of social reformation alone.

In the world of cannabis, social justice has long been an integral topic of consideration, only becoming more recognized and acknowledged as time has passed. Finding causes, nonprofits, methodologies and lines of communication that can work as part of your social justice support structure is necessary and allows you to lean on the experience of those who have likely been considering the topic at hand for decades.

Regardless of the form your advocacy takes —be it restructuring, donations, volunteerism, communication panels, etc. —remain genuine, accountable, and open to feedback. Above all else, be sure to turn that advocacy from an idea into action, representing the best possible socially culpable version of your cannabis company.