stoneman douglas students gather by capitol

3 Things Brands Can Learn From the Stoneman Douglas Students

— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO and Founder 

On Valentine’s Day, a gunman walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, killing 17 students and teachers and injuring 17 more. Last week, thousands of students walked out of schools across the country — “driven,” the New York Times said, “by the conviction that they should never have to run from guns again.” And this Saturday, thousands more people are expected to join the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the country.

The marchers are demanding more than the usual “thoughts and prayers” that politicians too often offer after mass shootings. Instead, they’re calling for genuine political change: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and the implementation of thorough background checks on every person who buys a gun in the U.S. And as they do, they’re rising up and pushing back against the lobbyists who have been shaping our gun policy for so many decades — and for once, it seems like politicians might actually listen. If we squint, we can see change on the horizon.


‘Never Again’ creates new movement among brands

What’s new about this movement? In some ways, not much. The student-led movement for gun control has a lot in common with earlier movements led by young people: For the young activists from Stoneman Douglas and other schools, this is a life-or-death situation. The status quo has failed our kids — it’s failed to keep them safe, and it’s failed to hear their voices. Now, they’re speaking up and speaking out.

But there is something new here, too. The #NeverAgain movement has been able to harness the power of social media to put pressure on brands to take a stand. For example, by drawing the public’s attention to previously under-the-radar partnerships between the National Rifle Association and companies like Delta, United Airlines and MetLife, student activists and their allies have pressured those companies to change course and cut ties. Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack announced on “Good Morning America” that his company will no longer sell assault-style weapons, and will ban the sale of firearms to people younger than 21. Walmart, which stopped selling assault-style weapons in 2015, also raised its minimum firearm purchasing age to 21, and noted that it would no longer sell items that resembled assault rifles (including toys and nonlethal weapons) on its website. Last weekend, Nickelodeon and other Viacom channels went dark for 17 minutes to honor the 17 students and teachers who lost their lives in Parkland.

As another consequence of this brand-focused activism, many companies have already offered their support for this weekend’s March for Our Lives. Gucci donated $500,000 in support of “the fearless students across the country who demand that their lives and safety become a priority.” Lyft is offering free rides to and from the march, and Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff donated $1 million of his own money to the cause.

It’s exciting to see brands standing up for a cause like this. And for brands considering when, why or how to take a stand on a complicated political issue, this moment offers some valuable lessons.


1. Know when to stand up

First, it might not make sense for every brand to take action on divisive political issues. It depends on your brand’s values, your origin story, what you stand for — and, of course, what matters most to your customers. For instance, Nickelodeon’s protest was consistent with its brand identity, since gun violence in schools is an issue that affects kids (Nick’s core audience) and their parents most of all. For them, it’s not just an abstract political problem, it’s a life-and-death reality, each and every day.

If you do decide to engage, have a plan of action for how your brand will show support. The key word there is action. “Thoughts and prayers” just won’t cut it anymore.


2. It’s not just about you — it’s also about your partners 

Delta and United sell airplane tickets, not guns, so you might think they’d be able to stay far away from debates about gun control. But because they offered a discount program for NRA members, activists made them a target — and it worked.

For other companies, deciding what to do about those NRA partnerships had unexpected consequences. FedEx was one of the few companies that opted to stand by its partnership with the gun-rights group (though it did Tweet a statement saying that assault rifles and large-capacity magazines could be “an inherent potential danger” to schools and communities “when such weapons are misused”); consequently, it faced a great deal of backlash on social media. On the other hand, after Delta stopped providing its NRA-member discount, Georgia’s lieutenant governor threatened to eliminate a tax break on jet fuel that could cost the company tens of millions of dollars every year.
In sum: Know who your partners are and have a plan for what to do if they suck you into a crisis.


3. Own the narrative

Dick’s Sporting Goods made a smart move — it changed its policies before activists pressured it to do so, and it did so in a very public way. As a result, Dick’s got to set the narrative, rather than waiting for gun-control activists to do it for Dick’s.


A new generation of communicators

The #NeverAgain student activists and their allies are smart communicators. They’re media- and brand-savvy, and they see right through political and marketing double-speak. For those championing gun control and other progressive policies, this is cause to celebrate. For brands, it’s a sign of things to come. As Jimmy Fallon put it on his show this past Tuesday: “Our future is speaking, and we should listen.” 


Read more posts from WE Global CEO and Founder Melissa Waggener Zorkin here.

Follow Melissa on LinkedIn and Twitter.