The Question Every Organization Must Answer

“What do you stand for?” 

It’s a question that comes up often in our work, particularly when we’re guiding organizations on how to deliver their most compelling messages. After years of working with mission-driven organizations, I know that being able to articulate what an organization believes in is central to having others believe in it.

“What do you stand for?”

It’s not an easy question to answer. Most have a much easier time answering “what are you against?” even though the answer to the first question is at the heart of your organization’s purpose and values. Try it. I’m certain you’ll agree.

For many individuals and organizations, it’s no small task to commit the right words to paper. Once those words are there, however, other business decisions start to fall into place.

That is NOT what happened last month with Lands’ End. The struggling company, which has been trying to cultivate a younger customer base, recently launched the “Legend Series” in its spring catalog. The series, as it was described, would feature individuals who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large. The first interview in the series featured Gloria Steinem, highlighting her work to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The interview further explored “challenges for women in the workplace, the renewed drive for an equal rights amendment and Steinem’s path through life.”

Hours after the catalog went live, a flood of criticism prompted the clothing company to remove all references to Steinem from its website, and subsequently issue a statement apologizing.

“We understand that some of our customers were offended by the inclusion of an interview in a recent catalog with Gloria Steinem on her quest for women’s equality. We thought it was a good idea and we heard from our customers that, for different reasons, it wasn’t. For that, we sincerely apologize. Our goal was to feature individuals with different interests and backgrounds that have made a difference for our new Legends Series, not to take any political or religious stance.”

That, however, is not where it ended. A second wave of criticism erupted from another set of angry customers who called out the organization’s inability to defend its position, and called their decision an insult to women’s rights. A debate soon erupted on the Lands’ End Facebook page.

To think, this could have all been avoided if the leadership at Land’s End had taken more time to figure who they are, and what they stand for, before taking on what they should have known could be a controversial choice for the first interview.

Rather, the company rushed right into the center of two equally strong opinions, with no ground of their own to stand on. As Jay Livingston, Chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University commented, “their dilemma on Steinem reflects their dilemma on clothing and clientele. Lands’ End wants to attract younger shoppers, who lean toward the pro-choice side, but not lose their older customers, who lean the opposite direction.”

You can’t have it both ways, Lands’ End. No organization can. You’ve got to know what you stand for, so you know what to defend. Otherwise, you’re simply another organization standing on a very shaky foundation.

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