We have seen countless articles making a case for companies to take a stand on social issues. A recent study featured by Adweek, for instance, found that the majority of consumers want to see not only brands but also CEOs and executives weigh in on these issues.

When it comes to multinational companies, however, how do they navigate the complex social expectations in different markets, especially those such as Indonesia with hypersensitive audiences?

Take Starbucks for example. Last year, CEO Howard Schultz announced the company’s support for same-sex marriages. While other parts of the world celebrated, a significant portion of Indonesian netizens hit their keyboards, calling on their friends and families to boycott the coffee chain behemoth.

More recently, Unilever’s ice cream brand, Wall’s, faced a similar quandary. A picture of Wall’s Golden Gaytime ice cream, covered in rainbow colored rice crisps went viral online. It unleashed the fury of conservative groups in Indonesia, who had Unilever pegged as a “LGBTQ-supporting company”.

The fact is, the special rainbow version was sold only in Australia and only for a limited time in support of the 2017 Mardi Gras Festival. The combination of the word “gay” in its name and the rainbow color was, however, enough to trigger calls for boycott in the country with growing trend of conservatism.

What Unilever Indonesia did in the face of such potential crisis was to distance itself from the offensive product locally, and assure Indonesians that it respects the country’s “cultural norms and religious values”. In its statement, Unilever also went further and reminded the consumers that the products it sells in the country were all halal.

The statement worked to diffuse the anger of the Indonesian netizens but it did not sit so well with more progressive customers globally. To some of them, it read as though the company turned its back away from its global values.

So, how can these multinational companies align their stance across different markets in a way that doesn’t betray its values?

And, what to do when caring turns into crisis?

To us, there are four key points to consider when a multinational company is thinking of adopting a public stance on critical social issues:


1. Define your core values

Approach the decision not as riding on a trend (“LGBTQ movement is trendy right now; I want my brand to hop onboard.”). Instead, approach it only as part of an exercise to define your corporate character, including your core values and how they relate to your business.

What is it that you truly believe in as a company? It can be equal opportunity for all. It can be diversity. It can be the protection of the earth for generations to come. 


2. Activate with consistency globally, but translate for local context

Once you define your core values, it will be clearer to map out how you need to activate them.

The key is to repeat and demonstrate this belief consistently across the business. When you talk to your employees, when you talk to your consumers, when you talk to other stakeholders. The actual words of what you say, and the ways you say it, may differ from market to market – but the underlying belief should persist.

Activating these values can then include determining what social issues are in line with your belief. You will then need to decide whether you want to take up this issue globally, or one specifically in certain markets and another in the rest.

If you believe in, say, diversity, you may choose to specifically support LGBTQ movement in countries like the United States, but not in countries that criminalize it – as interference in which may have a legal effect on you. Instead, in those countries, you can identify what other critical issues in the diversity corridor that you can support.


3. Be prepared for crisis-like situations

When you take a stand on critical social issues, it usually means you either agree or disagree with someone. A potential crisis arising from attacks by the other side, therefore, is more a matter of “when” than “if”.

To minimize disruption to your business, you will need to be prepared. The earliest and the simplest step is to have a standby statement. Not only for the media, but also for relevant stakeholders including your customers on social media.

This is especially important because we don’t live in a vacuum; a support to an issue in one country, although meant only in that specific local context, can carry over to other countries and be a problem there.

Therefore, when developing such statement, you need to ensure that you go back to your core values, so you do not end up betraying them. Your core values are the glue that tie the issues you may show or not show public support for in different markets.

For example, we tweaked Unilever’s statement to be:

“It is Unilever’s belief globally that we respect diversity and equality of every human. At the same time, we respect Indonesian culture and religious values and norms as we have been here for 84 years. We always ensure that our products, activities and campaigns in Indonesia are suitable for Indonesians from different backgrounds. That’s why we did not sell, promote, or communicate products that may not be in line with Indonesian culture and religious values.”


4. Trust your local operations when a crisis happens

Lastly, when a crisis breaks out in a particular market, listen to your local team. They are the people on the ground who know best what the dynamics and the nuances are like there. Offer them support and provide them with the necessary tools or resources but trust their local insights.


Written by Mira Febri Mellya and Marsha Imaniara 

Maverick Crisis Working Group

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