If you follow U.S. politics at all, one thing is clear — a seemingly intractable cultural divide has emerged in the United States around social issues. And social media is drawing individuals with similar opinions into ongoing conversations with each other. Moreover, consumers now have the ability and the capacity to influence brands based on where those brands stand in relation to one’s political position.

Perhaps as a result, many brands have publicly taken political stances on divisive issues to identify with the values of their customers. In fact, over the past year many brands faced major scrutiny as their political positions took center stage on social media. Let’s take a look at a few examples and see what lessons can be learned from brands that are considering taking a public political stance on social issues.

Taking a Political Position

Perhaps the most talked about brand when it comes to social issues this year was Chick-Fil-A. The privately held fast-food chain faced furious social media backlash after company COO Dan Cathy made several strongly worded comments regarding his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Mr. Cathy’s words were galvanizing for many and brought to light the company’s existing practices of donating to groups opposed to same-sex marriage. Outrage and protest began to build as people on both sides of the issue took to Facebook and Twitter, and co-opted the company’s online presence with the debate. By taking a side on same-sex marriage, the company accidentally ignited a firestorm of controversy.

Soon politicians on both sides of the aisle took stances as well. Most notably, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee organized a “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.” The August 1st “eat-in” event shattered records for the company and managed to clean many locations out of food. Despite the temporary boom in sales, Chick-Fil-A’s detractors did not back down either. The company suddenly faced opposition in acquiring necessary permits for expansion into more liberal communities like Chicago, though Chicago’s mayor’s expressed desire to resist Chick-Fil-A drew a bit of criticism itself.

Backing Down

Despite record-setting sales, Chick-Fil-A took action. The company wound up issuing a statement saying it would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.

While this may have quelled the uproar for a time, it’s impossible to tell what long-term effects the brand may experience. It’s unlikely that those offended by Chick-Fil-A’s prior position will be quick to trust the brand again. Similarly, its back-pedaling may be viewed as pandering by those who supported the company’s original position. As Chick-Fil-A is a privately held company, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a direct answer from the company on the full impact of this debacle.

Know Your Customer

Chick-Fil-A wasn’t the only company to enter the politicized corporate arena in 2012. Oreo, JCPenney, and Target all featured gay rights symbols, or same-sex couples in their marketing. While all three companies faced backlashes and threats of boycott, they held strong in their positions and received substantially more support than condemnation from social media communities.

Perhaps the reason these companies faced less heat than Chick-Fil-A lies in their demographics. Customers generally gravitate to brands that they believe share their values. The gamble that Oreo, Target, and JCPenney took in coming out in support of gay rights issues was that any negative reaction would be potentially offset by support from the LGBT-friendly community. All three companies likely crunched the numbers and found they had more to gain than to lose in their target demographics by taking the positions they did.

The Truth Will Get Out

Taking a stance on a social issue is bound to isolate a large potential customer base. While there are many risks associated with this marketing strategy, there can be a lot of value as well. For example, sustainable shoe company TOMS shoes has made political advocacy a central part of its business model —and found great success because of it. These practices work because the brand targets a specific customer base and offers a transparent position that its customers are aware of from the start.

Customers impose their values on the brands they believe in. When they find their values are misaligned with their favorite brands, they may not be their favorite brands for long. If you’re going to take a stance on a social issue, you must be forthcoming. Know what your customers stand for and either side with them, or don’t take a stance at all.

[Image credits: Mark Turnauckas, Joe ShlabotnikJames Lee]