brand strategy, social justice

Don’t forget to walk the walk when you advocate social justice

October 2020

You can barely move on social media these days without coming across a brand earnestly promoting their stance on the latest social issue. You bump into Nike putting NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously took the knee in protest over police brutality, as the face of its campaign. You find McDonald’s serving its fries in rainbow-coloured containers during gay Pride Month. Dove soap’s body positive campaign. And so on.

Today’s consumers won’t buy anything from you if they think you don’t share their social values

There's a good reason for this. Brands aren’t dumb. The fact is that today’s generation of consumers won’t buy anything from you if they think you don’t share their social values. In a 2018 survey by DoSomething found that 76% of respondents, who were between 13 and 25 years old, said they had purchased, or would consider purchasing, a brand or product to show support for the issues the brand supported. Even more significantly, 67% had stopped purchasing, or would consider doing so, if a company stood for something that didn’t align with their values.

The above-mentioned Nike ad drew ‘record engagement’ with the brand, and the company saw an extra $6bn added to its  overall value in the months after it aired. It was controversial. But the risk paid off, and handsomely.

Navigating the moral maze

There’s a fine line between standing for something and trying too hard, and if you get it wrong, you pay a high price

So the bottom-line benefits of “purpose marketing” are clear, “Reading the room” and aligning with your customers’ values is essential if you want to build brand loyalty with Millennials and Gen Z. But there’s also a fine line between standing for something and trying too hard, and if you get it wrong, you pay a high price.

That’s something that Peloton found out the hard way, after it shouted its support for Black Lives Matter then had to apologize for its lack of diversity among senior staff. Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner is another infamous example, among many others. Young consumers aren’t afraid to use their social media savvy to name and shame a brand they see as hypocritical.

The key to navigating this minefield is for a company to live its values, not just talk about it. To do this takes investment, in terms of both time and resources.

How to live your values

Invest in structural change. If you don’t, you are simply contributing to the problem

First, get your house in order. If you want to show that you’re serious about gender equality, for example, then make sure your company has that value at the heart of its recruitment policy, its culture and every one of its internal and external operations. This is about investing in structural change, and If you don’t, you are simply contributing to the problem. 

Admit your failings and demonstrate that you are trying to be better

Importantly, if you do have work to do before your house is in order, then be transparent about it. Admit your failings and demonstrate that you are trying to be better. Take the example of Starbucks and its response to an incident in 2018, when staff called the cops on two black men at one of its stores in the US and got them wrongfully arrested. It shut down all of its shops to give its staff training, communicated its position clearly and sincerely, and admitted that it was ‘still learning’. 

In it for the long-haul

Next, a one-off campaign, donation or public statement won’t cut it. You need to be ‘issue fluent’, and that means building your communications consistently over a long period and taking the trouble to fully understand the topic. Engaging in a way that’s culturally ignorant or tone-deaf arguably gets you into more trouble than not engaging at all, as Pepsi found to its cost with its Kendall Jenner ad.

The brands that are successful in this world purpose marketing are the ones who blur the lines between brand and advocacy

The brands that are successful in this world purpose marketing are the ones who blur the lines between brand and advocacy. They don’t make gestures, indulge in tokenism, or simply try to throw money at the problem. They engage with an issue early, and they engage often. They imbue the values into their culture. In other words, they don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk.