I’m so generous! I’m so socially conscious! I recycle! I have a diverse team! I changed my Facebook profile picture for “awareness”! Check out any business or organization’s social media or website, and you may see them expounding their “virtues.” These can include claims of environmental friendliness, anti-racism, or COVID-19 safety protocols. Some groups can genuinely make these claims, while other groups are all talk.
Without a clear connection between what they say and what they do, “virtue signaling” is poor form at best and a reputation ruiner at worst. Signaling without doing the work weakens your involvement in the change process. This lazy way of engaging, often called “slacktivism,” can obfuscate the cause it is intended to highlight.
What is virtue signaling? Most people know that a virtue is a demonstration of high moral standards (e.g., honesty). A signal, however, is a more complicated concept. Economists describe a signal as anything that conveys information about a product’s qualities to a consumer.
Price is a signal. Consumers understand that an expensive product on Amazon is generally higher quality than the cheaper option. Brand name is another example. Luxury brand names signal superior quality to generic brands. In an economically perfect world, signals would accurately reflect a product’s qualities. Sadly, this isn’t the case. If signs of high quality are easy to copy, sellers of low-quality products will use them. If it’s easy for people to virtue signal, they will likely do so.
Unfortunately, whether unintentional or malicious, some may highlight virtues that don’t align with actual business practices or company culture. A TV host who promotes kindness, diversity, and inclusivity may not demonstrate that to staff off-camera. A company that supports human rights may sell products manufactured in horrendous conditions outside of the USA. Beware, consumers are savvy, have easy access to information, and love to point out hypocrisy. Simply put, you can’t fool people forever.
So how do you avoid virtual signaling?
- Pick causes that matter to you and be engaged. Donate time, talent, and treasure to the cause. There’s nothing wrong with showing your involvement to your customers.
- Learn and teach. Learn about the challenges and opportunities to create a diverse workforce or a sustainable product, and then do it.
- Watch your advertising, messages, and marketing collateral. Make sure they are representative of your actual company. If you’re working toward a change—own it.
Living up to your values isn’t easy, but customers will notice if you put in the hard work.