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Social Advocacy | How Authenticity Impacts Your Brand’s Marketing  

July 30, 2021

Once upon a time, rules of the dinner table, well, ruled the marketing world: Don’t talk about politics or religion, etc. A case study in “effective marketing” strategy a generation ago would have been filled with buzzwords like neutrality, approachability and universality.

These days, particularly in the past 5 years, the playbook has flipped entirely. Where once taking a stand meant broad backlash and brand suicide, today those reactions arise when companies don’t communicate their authenticity upfront and without hesitation immediately.

The game has changed dramatically as it’s not just about what a business does一it’s about who that business is. What a brand authentically and passionately stands for is now almost just as strong of a consumer trigger as the products, services or value they offer. But, it can also backfire.

Social advocacy and social responsibility have become almost foundational in modern marketing strategy. However, the concept of social advocacy cannot be treated like just another marketing tactic. It can also accomplish the opposite if not executed in a way that is both authentic and resonates. It can’t feel transparent, lazy or condescending. You have to hit the right note. It has to be a part of who you are as an individual brand and reflect your core audience.

Why Social Advocacy Matters

Today’s consumers are more educated, and more involved, than ever. They know they have options, and they know how to get what they want. But they also care more than ever about social causes that align with their values.

The numbers show just how important social advocacy and authenticity are to consumers. Authenticity is a key factor for 86 percent of shoppers in determining which brands those consumers will support. Additionally, trust is an important factor for 81 percent of consumers. Brands must focus on building a reputation of integrity, reliability and service to important causes.

Just as critically, brands need to know what not to say. Or, at least, how to say things in the right way. It can’t feel forced or transparent. Nearly two-thirds of consumers一64 percent一would boycott a brand if that brand took a stance on an issue that didn’t align with the feelings of the consumer.

While it’s impossible to get everyone to agree with everything a brand says, this statistic speaks to the power of authenticity. You can’t fake the causes you support一they’re simply part of your brand. And your support of those causes will naturally draw some people in while alienating others. Taking an authentic stand whether a consumer agrees with that stand or not, however, will earn your brand a higher level of trust, respect, and ultimately a more passionate and long-term advocacy from the consumers you need most.

Social responsibility is the ultimate test of a brand’s integrity. Supporting the wrong cause, or appearing to support the right cause for self-serving reasons, can destroy your brand. However, embracing the issues and causes that speak to your company will see you make a difference in your community, while also increasing revenue.

Social Advocacy Case Studies

Recent years have seen countless examples of brands embracing social advocacy, whether it be an extension of the brand’s morals or in an attempt to appear more authentic and compassionate. Let’s take a look at how these efforts have played out in real life.

Nike

Nike’s positioning as a footwear and apparel provider has given it tremendous credibility in the sports marketplace. That’s why it was so shocking to see Nike essentially turn its back on the National Football League一a league for which Nike is the exclusive uniform provider一to support Colin Kaepernick, who was famously driven from the NFL due to his battles for social justice. It might also be surprising to note that Nike profited handsomely from its stance, with its stock increasing by five percent in the aftermath of the launch of a campaign based around Kaepernick, bringing an additional $6 billion into Nike’s coffers.

Ben and Jerry’s

Despite being sold to Unilever in 2000, ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s has continued to be run like an independent business that cares about the world in which it lives. Frequently outspoken about social issues, Ben and Jerry’s put their passion for their causes directly into their products in 2020, creating ice cream flavors like Justice ReMix’d, with money from each sale going directly towards helping societal issues that need fixing. Efforts like these have paid off for Ben and Jerry’s; Unilever reported a 26 percent increase in at-home ice cream purchases in the second quarter of 2020, which followed a 15 percent growth in the first quarter.

National Football League

America’s most popular sports league has a complicated relationship with social advocacy. On the surface, it seems as though the league has embraced social causes. However, there’s a growing perception that the NFL simply chases after whichever movement is popular at the moment so that they can appear to be on the right side of popular opinion. Case in point, the NFL’s treatment of the aforementioned Colin Kaepernick, only to encourage the support of the very causes for which Kaepernick was driven from the league.The league still remains widely popular, but the NFL is a cautionary tale for any business that attempts to gain social clout despite not fully believing in its own message.

Understanding Your Customers

Most of us have a cause that we strongly believe in. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best idea to center your marketing around that cause. Why? Because marketing isn’t about making you happy — it’s about appealing to your target market. Yes, there is a way to accomplish this while still supporting causes you’re passionate about. But it takes a thorough understanding of your audience.

The truth is, there’s a not-so-small population that’s completely over pandemic-based commercials and social justice initiatives. They just want to get on with their lives, the way they used to be. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s hard to make this group happy while simultaneously fighting for causes in public. There’s a balancing act that’s necessary here, and it’s one you might not successfully navigate all the time.

The best way to know what you should and shouldn’t say? Ask. Survey your customers and ask them how passionate they are about causes that are on your radar. At the same time, ask if they feel your brand should raise their voice in support of these causes. The answers to these questions will guide your social marketing actions in the future.

It’s important to understand that the goal of this is to try to encourage support and goodwill based on causes you already care about. This isn’t an attempt to find what’s popular and act like you support it, like the NFL and others have done. You’re just trying to find a happy medium between standing up for what you believe in and strengthening the ties between your brand and your audience. That’s what authenticity is all about.

Do Your Research

Now that you have an idea of what your audience will support, it’s time to look outside your business and see what’s happening outside your four walls. What’s going on around you, and what causes can you reasonably support?

The type of research you’ll do here is a two-way street. First, see what causes resonate with the people within your own building. People can do some incredible things if they’re properly motivated. Speak to your team and see what your staff is passionate about. If they’re part of implementing social advocacy, they’ll be much more likely to get behind the cause.

Next, look at the world. Compare the causes you’ve identified to what’s going on in the world. Is there a need for what you have to say? Will your objectives be overlooked, or will they just become one more voice alongside a million others? Try to identify opportunities that combine a cause you believe in with an opportunity for growth. Again, you’re not trying to exploit people’s desire for change一you just want to speak to people on their level regarding something you truly believe in.

Take Action

With all of your preparation done, it’s time to put your research and good intentions into action. Your ultimate goal is to craft a course of action that will cement your brand as an ally and advocate for causes that speak to both your brand and your target audience.

Prioritize the causes and movements based around how important they are to you as an organization and to your customers. A very personal cause that’s supported by your customer base is a great place to start. You can also look at initiatives that have touched employees and even your customers. For instance, if you’re a restaurant, you can support initiatives to make sure nobody goes hungry, both globally and within your community.

Another thing to consider is the popularity of the cause and its overall viability. The causes you support should be meaningful, but also fit nicely into the overall profile of social advocacy. A cause too niche might not garner support, but a massively popular one might make people doubt your authenticity. Follow your heart and pick something that means something, but will also help your brand to stand out a little.

Most importantly, choose a cause that you’ll support for the long haul. As we saw with the NFL, nobody likes the company that puts rainbows on their ads just because they think it’ll curry favor during Pride Month, or issues pink clothing during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It comes across as pandering, and it does more harm than good. Instead, work on giving back year-round. This shows your true commitment to the cause, and it’ll also help you to accomplish more. Only 23 percent of consumers believe that brands support causes for altruistic reasons. This is your chance to show you’re doing this the right way.

This is a sentiment you can carry into your marketing materials. Instead of producing products or advertising relating to your cause, you can simply announce that you’re donating directly to a charity to show your support. This minimizes your costs while ensuring that the initiatives that need your support will receive your full funding. It also guards against being seen as piggybacking onto trendy causes in an attempt to get your brand’s name out there.

Rather than creating expensive marketing materials regarding the social advocacy flavor of the month, you can invest those resources into highlighting the experiences of your staff. During Pride Month, for example, you can showcase your LGBTQ employees and let them share what Pride Month means to them and how your company is helping to address their issues. Simply listen to the people closest to you, and amplify their voice in a way that helps everyone. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

Incorporating social advocacy and authenticity into your marketing strategy can be a risky proposition from a public relations perspective. The wrong approach will have people assuming the worst about your brand, causing even more damage than doing nothing would have. However, if you explore social advocacy the right way, you’ll do a world of good while also increasing the profile of your brand at the same time. In essence, you’ll reap the rewards with long-term consumer advocacy. If you’d like more information on how you can accomplish this, contact us at Commit Agency today.

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