Brand Activism: Is there Value in Brands Engaging with Social Causes?

Never discuss religion, sex, or politics at a dinner party. Up until the last decade or so, most companies took that stance in business too keeping their mouths shut when social issues erupted. Corporate reputations were at stake, after all. But a well designed and appropriately implemented campaign for the purpose of social change can be beneficial for companies and their customers.

Today, every company is in the public eye. In this age of social activism, powerful forces are fueling a fundamental shift, not only from the breathtakingly swift influence of social media but also in the rise and fall of brands and their leaders.

Social activism is a group or individual that seeks social change, and they place a high premium on truth. If you want your brand community to get involved with a social cause, it must be closely tied to your company’s actual products, services, or missions. When brands do not understand their own truth and how it can align, activism ends in disaster. The antidote to disingenuousness is aligning with a truth you are willing to defend publicly.

Wading into a Controversial issue? Dos and Don’ts

Brands need to carefully consider what social issues they wish to support and look long and hard at whether the cause aligns with the brand community, its audience, and what they collectively stand for. When a brand acts on a shared purpose, it can reap the rewards of a strong corporate reputation. But if consumers feel a company’s stance on a social issue is out of character, it will pay the price.

For instance, it makes sense for Kimberly-Clark’s diaper brand Huggies to develop the No Baby Unhugged campaign. The initiative, which started in 2015, promotes the scientific benefits of touch for newborns and provides support to volunteer hugging programs in hospitals for babies whose parents can’t always be there. The program propelled the brand forward as a “medical authority,” gaining the trust of mothers across Canada.

Besides being a brand-boosting initiative, the campaign has also been good for their bottom line. It’s tied to another marketing objective. For every mother who submits a photo of herself hugging her baby (or her pregnant belly) the company will donate five dollars toward the No Baby Unhugged initiative. By sending in the picture, the mom is registered in the customer database for marketing purposes and is given a free packet of diapers to try. In its first year alone, the overall campaign saw Huggies sales rise 19.2 percent. These are staggering results considering its industry category only averages about one percent growth year-over-year.

But when a company decides to co-opt on a cause, tread carefully. A disastrous example of co-opting an existing cause is Pepsi’s 2017 advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner.

Titled Live for Now, the ad featured Jenner storming out of a modeling job to join a nondescript protest. With mounting tensions between police and multi-cultural protesters carrying “join the conversation” signs, the commercial vaguely addresses the Black Lives Matter movement. Jenner magically solves everything by opening a can of Pepsi and offering it to a cop. It was a misguided attempt to depict Pepsi a culturally unifying force, but all the ad managed to do was trivialize a hot-button social issue.

Pepsi’s ad received an immediate torrent of backlash with consumers ostracizing the brand across social media. Within 24 hours of its release, Pepsi withdrew the ad and quickly apologized. While Pepsi’s creative team may have had their hearts in the right place, it was a huge blow to the brand’s reputation as well as to Jenner’s.

A glaring difference between two of these campaigns is that a third-party branding group created Huggies’, and an in-house marketing team developed Pepsi’s. It’s understandably difficult for an in-house team to see beyond their day-to-day promotional walls. Unfortunately for PepsiCo, their attempt at making a social impact came off as false and self-serving.

There is a vast difference between brand activism and social bandwagoning. What separates one from the other is an honest understanding of the issue and whether or not it makes sense for your brand community to be aligned with it. Reacting to a social crisis because it’s ‘popular’ and throwing huge sums of cause-based marketing dollars at it won’t gain favourable reactions from a discerning public. When it comes to social purpose, the public is more trusting of companies that take results-oriented actions that help support a brand-related cause.

Related Article: Understanding the Psychology of Brand Promises

Social Demands of Brands are Increasing

Although it may seem safer to stay neutral and stick to selling your products and services, when confronted with a social crisis today, neutrality can be tricky. The 21st-century has ushered in a more informed and purpose-driven consumer. They seek out businesses that are intensely committed to giving back to society. Consumers today are ready to take action to help improve the world, and they want to see those values reflected in the companies they do business with. In their eyes, it’s not enough anymore for companies to merely claim they responsibly deliver an affordable product.

Millennials, currently the largest population of consumers, relentlessly pursue authenticity and action. According to a 2017 study by Haas School of Business at Berkeley in California, “more than 9-in-10 millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause.” This demographic wants to align themselves with companies that have a compelling—and sincere—vision for social change. They are increasingly skeptical of brand promises and, yet, more engaged with the brands they trust. They want to know what a brand’s role in society is and how, if they put their trust in that brand community and do business with that company, they are contributing to something greater than padding a CEO’s wallet.

That’s not likely to change with post-millennial generations. Generation Z, while only in their early to late teens, are passionate about driving social change. Born into a universally connected world, they are well-informed and are already making headlines the world over through their activism, use of social media, diversity, and demand to be heard. By 2020, Gen Z will represent about 40% of all customers. As they’re buying power increases, they will speak out with their dollars. They are involved in “assertive activism,”attending protests or rallies and boycotting companies whose values don’t align with their own.

The way values are instilled into a company needs to make sense though. For instance, WeWork co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, recently sent out an email to his 6,000+ employees announcing that the firm’s upcoming “Summer Camp” retreat would offer only meat-free options at the event. The new no-meat policy also affects the company’s travel and expense policy, as well as the food and drink kiosk system in some of its buildings.

In the email, McKelvey noted, “New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact, even more than switching to a hybrid car.”

The main takeaways? Demands are coming from both consumers and brands, and this isn’t going away.

There is a vast difference between brand activism and social bandwagoning Click To Tweet

Are You Ready to Take a Stand?

So how can companies avoid a PR debacle like Pepsi’s, or stand by their controversial decisions like WeWork?
Aside from not speaking out in undue course, consider these five components of brand activism.

  1. Does the social issue or cultural tension that you’re trying to address genuinely align with your brand community? Is the cause related to the central truth of the brand? A brand must understand its core truth before attempting this.
  2. Can you create an initiative to back up the issue your company is speaking out on? Avoid tokenism; avoid being disingenuous at all costs. Ask yourself: if a group challenged you on your intentions, do you have the means, resources, and passion to defend your position?
  3. Consider your audience and how your association with the cause will be received by them. Do you truly know your brand community and know how they will react? Have you built up that relationship?
  4. What is your company’s level of commitment to the cause? Brand activism is not a short-term campaign. It is a long-term commitment to make a tangible change within your immediate community or on a national level.
  5. How will you monitor and evaluative your efforts to cause? You will need to have a way of analyzing the effectiveness of your plan.

The key is to stay true to your brand community and be fully committed to the cause. At Blade, we’ve been helping brands create communities since 1991. If you’re stuck on how to approach a social or cultural issue that aligns with your brand’s identity, give us a shout. We’d be glad to help.


Blade Brain Trust

The Blade Brain Trust brings you relevant insights to help you build your brand community.

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