Kitchener-Waterloo·Q&A

Businesses posting pandemic-related social media need to be aware of the risks, marketing expert says

The past 15 months have been tough on local businesses, with some speaking out and opening contrary to Ontario pandemic laws, then posting about it on social media. But that comes with some risks, warns Sarah Wilner, a marketing expert at Wilfrid Laurier University, who spoke to CBC K-W's The Morning Edition.

Customers more likely to give independent businesses more 'leeway': Sarah Wilner, Wilfrid Laurier

Sarah Wilner is an associate professor in marketing and chair in brand communications at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Wilner spoke to host Craig Norris of CBC K-W's The Morning Edition about why business owners should be cautious about the messages they want to send before aligning their brand to a cause. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Local businesses that have spoken out over the past 15 months about the pandemic, including opening their doors despite shutdown rules and posting about it on social media, face some risks when it comes to customer reaction, according to an expert at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Some businesses have also thrown their support behind anti-lockdown rallies, attending in person and also noting it on social media.

Sarah Wilner, an associate professor of marketing and chair in brand communication at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, says business owners should think carefully about the message they want to send before aligning their brand to a cause. A social media post, a comment, even just hitting "like" on someone else's post can impact how customers view a business.

Questions answered

Host Craig Norris of CBC K-W's The Morning Edition spoke in depth to Wilner about the topic. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Norris: From a marketing perspective, why does a small or local business need to think about what it posts or even likes on social media? 

Wilner: I think as consumers, we don't make big distinctions about whether it's a small business or a global business. We just know that we engage with the companies that we care about and we engage with them as people. We think about them as conversational partners, and so I don't think anybody's worrying about what somebody's revenue was the previous year. They're just saying: 'Do I like this person? Do I like this retailer? … Do I want to do business with this company? '

Norris: We've seen some local businesses speak out against the [provincial] stay-at-home order and the lockdown measures. What's at risk here when they get political? 

Wilner: There are risks and there are benefits. There's a lot of research that shows that having a strong opinion and taking a stand on important issues is something that attracts consumers. The risk is that when it's an ambiguous or possibly contentious topic, that people are going to dislike what you have to say about it. And clearly, in the case of the COVID epidemic, we're all suffering. This is something that has affected all of us. So an individual business that seems to take it lightly, that seems to imperil us, that seems to be rejecting a type of community effort, is going to tell us something about, well, do I ever want to do business with them? 

Norris: I guess the flip side of that is what we said at the beginning was that's a positive in that they're seen as a crusader on the forefront of this?

Wilner: They could be. If that's also your belief or how you feel about the issue, then you feel closer to them, just like any person. I think about it as kind of sitting down at that family Thanksgiving dinner or at a dinner party. Are you going to talk politics or not? Some people are comfortable going out there. Some people want to read the room and understand better — maybe I'm not going to talk about my personal views until I know what other people think in this space. But for some small businesses, because their small business is so closely aligned, and so closely attached to their own views and their own perspectives, they're not putting it through that filter. They're just speaking because it's their business, it's their perspective, it's their idea and they're going to talk about it.

Norris: How careful do businesses need to be about the cause they align with? 

Wilner: Oh, they have to be very careful. I mean, I think we have different expectations if it's an independent store at some level as opposed to a major brand, because we know that major brands have economic consequences. So when we hear about a brand like Nestlé messing with Ontario water, we have very strong feelings and we feel that they could have done better and we feel that they're ethically compromised. If it's a local business, we might give them a little more leeway. We might say … in this context of whether or not to continue to open doors, 'Well, yeah, OK. You're imperilled by the economics of this. I can understand why you might want to stay open.' So on the one hand, we give them a little bit more leeway. On the other hand, people have memories and they don't forget. They can kind of forgive, but they don't forget. And if you find out that something that you were enjoying locally because it was, say, a favourite doughnut shop has a substitute, then you say, "I don't like that person's political views. I have other places I can go." If it's a one-off, and it's the most unique thing and you have no substitute for it, you might be a little more flexible. But certainly in the cases of things like a doughnut shop or a caregiver ... you say, 'Yeah, I'll take my business elsewhere.' 

Norris: How possible is it for a company or a small business to get that back? I mean, how hard is it for them to overcome a possible negative reaction like that? 

Wilner: We have a lot of research that shows that people have emotional, personal, engaged relationships, even with something as abstract as the idea of a brand. What's really important in that case is authenticity. So just as with any other situation, if somebody offers you an authentic apology or an authentic, 'Hey, you know what? I really considered this. My thinking on this has changed,' we're more likely to engage in it. If you think that somebody is uttering kind of a, 'Oh, fine, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that,; you're not trusting them anymore. Trust is everything in any kind of market exchange. And so to the degree that we believe them, that we think they're being really honest and meaningful in their shift or apology or whatever it is, we will forgive them. 

Norris: So much has changed in this pandemic, right? The way we engage with a lot of things. So how do you think the pandemic has affected consumers and the way that we may view a business's social media posts? 

Wilner: Well, I think we're all — I don't want to overstate it — but we're a little fragile now. Right? We have had much more time. A lot has been said and written about the amount of time we have for reflection and social issues, which we might have acknowledged in the past — like the Black Lives Matter movement, we might have said, 'Oh, that's tragic. That's something I should think about,' changed last May with the death of George Floyd because more people had more time to really sit and think about and talk to one another about the implications of that. So there's something about the isolation that we've been experiencing and the stress of that and just our own — not just a function of time, but the idea of having more bandwidth to be able to reflect and really consider what's important, I think, has amplified how we take some of these issues and how we feel about them. 

Listen to the full interview:

Local businesses who are on social media may not realize it, but they're building a brand. And it doesn't take much for a business owner's personality to come out in a tweet, or a like on Facebook or an emoji showing support on an Instagram post. Sarah Wilner, an associate professor of marketing and the Wilfrid Laurier University chair in brand communication, talks about the potential pitfalls of showing a person's political leanings on social media, and what it could mean for their business. 6:52

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