Building Bridges, Not Barriers: Brand Strategies For Social Advocacy

Research shows that 86% of consumers say authenticity is a key factor when deciding what brands they like and support. As awareness of brand values increases, consumers are scrutinizing how businesses engage with significant social issues like Pride Month, Juneteenth, Women’s History Month, and Black History Month. The challenge for companies lies in balancing authenticity and responsiveness in their branding strategies while avoiding the hollowness of opportunism.

Whether a company decides to take a stand on a social issue or not, the stakes are high. Remaining silent can lead to backlash, with consumers perceiving the brand as indifferent or even hostile. For instance, brands that failed to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement faced criticism and boycotts. On the other side of the coin, taking a stand can alienate certain customer segments as well, as was the case recently when Bud Light partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. The partnership was ill-received by conservative consumers, who organized a boycott in response. This led to a significant drop in sales.

So what is it that makes or breaks a company’s attempts at social advocacy? Most of it comes down to getting serious about making slow changes over the long haul, and using messaging that’s aligned with the company’s founding values. It’s also crucial to understand your audience and its nuances in order to strike the right balance between boldness and diplomacy.

Long-term social commitment vs short-term trends

When engaging with social causes, companies need to be conscientious about whether they’re ready to embrace a long-term commitment and not just short-term trends. While short-lived campaigns may garner immediate attention, they frequently fail to resonate deeply with consumers, because today’s consumer is more attuned to (and cynical about) “woke-washing” than ever before.

Several brands stand out as good examples of the long-haul, values-centric approach. Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of advocating for social justice, from supporting LGBTQ+ rights to environmental sustainability. Patagonia’s commitment to environmental causes is deeply ingrained in its brand identity, demonstrated by its decision to donate $10 million in tax cuts to environmental groups. TOMS “One for One” model, which donates a pair of shoes for every pair sold, is a longstanding initiative that has not only benefited communities in need but also cemented TOMS as a purpose-driven brand. Starbucks’ “College Achievement Plan,” which offers full tuition coverage for employees to earn a bachelor’s degree, shows the brand’s dedication to employee education and empowerment, while reflecting its broader commitment to social responsibility.

Such sustained efforts might not yield immediate financial returns, but they build a foundation of trust and goodwill that can lead to long-term success.

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Engaging authentically with social causes as a company: concrete methods

Here are a few ways companies can engage with social causes authentically.

1. Thorough research:

Understanding the nuances of a cause is necessary to ensure that campaigns are informed and respectful. Thorough research involves an in-depth exploration of the cause’s history, key issues, and current challenges. Brands should engage with a variety of sources, including academic studies, reports from non-profits, and first-hand accounts from those impacted by the issue. By seeking partnerships with relevant organizations and communities, brands stand to gain valuable insights and guidance. Collaborating with established groups also lends credibility to the brand’s efforts and amplifies impact through combined resources.

2. Highlighting community voices: 

Consumers respond well to the unpolished, from-the-heart perspectives of first-person accounts. By centering the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected by the cause, brands can create approachable, authentic campaigns. This requires actively listening to and featuring individuals and communities who are at the heart of the issue. For example, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign features real women discussing body positivity and self-esteem, which aligns with the brand’s mission to celebrate diversity and authenticity. Highlighting authentic voices allows brands to build a stronger emotional connection with their audience and fosters empathy and understanding. Highlighting the real experiences of others makes campaigns more credible and relatable.

3. Alignment in values and mission:

Authentic engagement means integrating social causes into the very fabric of the brand strategy, rather than treating them as separate marketing efforts. This demands alignment between the brand’s core values and the causes it supports (something which should be kept front of mind when a company is choosing what causes to get behind). For instance, if a brand consistently advocates for sustainability, its social cause initiatives should reflect this commitment across all platforms and communications. This cohesion supports the brand’s credibility and seriousness as a long-term, informed supporter of the causes it features in campaigns.

The delicate balance of taking a stand without alienating customers lies in genuine commitment to meaningful causes and expressing that commitment through research, partnering with credible organizations, highlighting community voices, and aligning campaigns with core values. It’s not enough to talk the talk anymore. The most successful brands will be those that advocate for social causes with sincere and sustained efforts.


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