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Sticky Branding: Andrew Witkin

Ukraine’s Fight Against Russia Is a Chance for Printers to Pick the Right Side of History

How companies are taking their stand – and can communicate their principles on more controversial issues.

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IN THE 1990S, HARVEY Gantt was a rising star in American politics. He was smart and accomplished – and he was running against conservative Jesse Helms for a critical United States Senate seat in North Carolina. He was also a trailblazer, having been the first black student to enroll at Clemson University in the 1960s. And in the middle of his hard-fought campaign, basketball superstar Michael Jordan, arguably the most popular athlete in the world at the time (and a native of the state), refused to endorse him, famously saying that, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Gantt lost the election, and Jordan was heavily disparaged for not taking a stand. 
 
More than 25 years later, the issue of whether celebrities and companies should take political stands still as relevant as ever. No organization wants to lose money, but at the same time there are some issues that simply can’t be ignored. The current conflict in Ukraine is one of them, and businesses that have historically tried to remain in the middle of the road are taking unprecedented steps of criticizing the Putin government and even pulling out of Russia, Belarus, and other countries that are supporting the invasion. 
 
It is a balancing act, to be sure. On one hand, companies that take pride in their values don’t want to be seen as hypocritical by ignoring the atrocities in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities that are suffering heavy civilian casualties. On the other hand, taking a principled stand could result in lost deals – and even forfeiture of assets. The Russian government has already threatened to nationalize the assets of global companies that have ceased operations in the country. This is going to have a cascading effect that will be felt for decades. So, what is the right way for companies to take a stand? 
 
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer because there is almost no precedent in the digital age for what is happening now. It was one thing for companies to be a bit wobbly on apartheid in the 1980s, but in an era dominated by social media and 24-hour news cycles, it’s impossible for companies to escape scrutiny and repercussions from customers who want to be on the right side of history. At the same time, most companies don’t want to suffer consequences that will affect their bottom line and their share price. 
 
One of the most popular ways we are seeing companies take a stand on Ukraine is by setting up charitable donation programs to support organizations that are on the ground helping the Ukrainian people. This approach makes a lot of sense for several reasons. For starters, it allows companies to take a stand without having to issue proclamations. That’s important for organizations that don’t want to upset the apple cart but still want to do the right thing. It also allows them to gain the moral high ground by doing more than just providing lip service. 
 
We are also seeing companies make bold statements in nontraditional ways. One of the biggest is through social media rather than official corporate statements. It’s not just the platform that is different: it’s the vibe. There is something that feels a bit “canned” when a press office puts out prepared remarks, and it’s usually pretty obvious they were written by a committee and heavily edited by lawyers. In contrast, there’s a certain level of authenticity that comes through on Twitter, Facebook, and other popular channels. In many ways, that’s because the CEO is a fixing his or her name to the statement, rather than just issuing something under the auspices of a faceless corporation. 
 
And it’s not just happening in the digital realm. Over the last month, several companies have put up banners and signs and given out shirts, flags, and stickers to show their support for the people of Ukraine. This is a significant shift in how companies showcase their values, and it is often tied into their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) mandates. All you need to do is walk past any corporate headquarters to see the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag proudly flying alongside the American flag. 
 
Our company prints hundreds of thousands of custom stickers every year for everything from high school graduations to weddings to coffee cans, but when the conflict in Ukraine erupted earlier this year, we were inundated with requests to make items that people could use to show their support for the people living there. In fact, we are now showcasing them as for-sale items, rather than just custom orders, on our website because there is so much demand for them. That rarely happens, and it proves how much love and support there is for Ukraine right now. 
 
One of the reasons why companies feel comfortable taking a stand on Ukraine is that it is a fairly non-controversial issue in the United States. There are very few public figures and companies who are actively supporting the Russian government, and the scope of the atrocities demands tangible responses and reactions rather than fence sitting. The universal support for the people of Ukraine, combined with companies’ CSR and ESG efforts, are proving to be a game changer that will have long-term consequences. And business leaders who don’t firmly place themselves on the right side of history are going to feel the heat. 

Andrew Witkin is the founder and CEO of StickerYou, a global ecommerce leader in custom-printed, die-cut products that empowers consumers and businesses to create high-quality materials for personal expression, marketing, and packaging.

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