What happens when brands take a stand on social issues?

April 10, 2019

There has been a recent increase in brands weighing in on social, cultural and political issues. This trend has raised questions as to how appropriate it is for brands to get involved in wider issues, whether the subject matter is related to their industry or not.

More than half of Brits think that brands should be able to express how they feel on certain topics, but only 42% like brands that are willing to get involved in social issues. This paints a confusing landscape for brands, but what is clear is that social or political statements made purely for their own sake are no longer being tolerated. Brand activism for the purpose of marketing has left consumers frustrated, so if brands are going to voice an opinion, they are expected to back it up with appropriate action.

How can brands take a stand?

Firstly, and most importantly, brands must place audience insights at the heart of any social or political campaigning. It can be easy to get swept along when trying to please as many people as possible, but brands must really listen and understand the issues before broadcasting their stance. For campaigning and lobbying to be taken seriously it must be aligned with a cause that your brand truly believes in, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon. This is only possible if your brand is willing and able to invest resources into making a serious positive change.

The Body Shop was one of the first brands to voice its ethical values and beliefs. By making fair trade a priority, they completely revolutionised the beauty sector. It’s founder and CEO, Anita Roddick, not only wanted to make her beauty products luxurious and enticing, but she had an absolute commitment to fair trade, transparency regarding their products, and no testing on animals. Body Shop clients were clearly fans of her products, but many more approved of her activism and often engaged in support for the causes they shared.

Beautifully clean

American company, Beauty Counter is a fantastic example of positive brand activism. By taking a cause that represents the very foundation of their business — clean beauty — they are making a serious investment in real change throughout the US. Beauty Counter has a “Never Ever List” which details more than 1,500 harmful or questionable chemicals, including the 1,400 banned within the European Union, which they will never use in any of their products. The United States has currently banned only 30 of these chemicals, so there is still much work to be done.

Beauty Counter has funded and trained 100 people from their network of sales consultants to lobby Congress and persuade them to change the law, so that the FDA can regulate formulations of personal care products. This is a particularly interesting case as they are petitioning for their USP to be made mandatory across the industry (although arguably the FDA are unlikely to take it that far), all for the greater good of consumers. It’s this attitude of putting the audience or the issue ahead of the brand that will help to support those embarking on the journey of making legislative change.

Nike’s risky move

When it was announced that former San Francisco 49er's quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the new face of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, the news was met with an intense media storm. From the hashtags #justburnit and #boycottnike trending on Twitter, to President Trump weighing in with his views; it looked as if Nike was facing a battle it might struggle to win.

However, sales figures told a different story. After an initial dip, online sales from the Sunday of Labor Day weekend through to the following Tuesday grew by 31%, compared to a 17% increase in the same period in 2017. But this backlash was anticipated, so Nike held firm on the campaign, showing no signs of apology for the furore created.

Having done their research, Nike knows that their most engaged audience persona is ‘Made it and Know it’, from one of 70 categories of consumers identified by 4C Insights (Cross Cultural Consumer Characterisation). These consumers have been identified as people who are generally successful, typically single with robust social lives, and like to spend money on entertainment and travel, as well as online streaming services. The research shows that one of the biggest concerns within this group is race equality, so while Nike had to battle the backlash from multiple angles, they also knew the message would resonate with their key audience.

Arguably this campaign alone won’t make significant change; however, it has opened up progressive and much needed conversations regarding the issues that fed into the campaign. And sentiment towards Kaepernick improved by 40% during the week after the campaign launch, helping him to spread his message of social injustice to a global audience.

Battling the backlash

More brands than ever are now confronting the issues that matter to their customers. Taking a stand, however, opens businesses up to a potential backlash, so brands must think carefully before they act. That’s not to say brand activism as a form of marketing can’t still benefit the brand, whilst affecting change, but brands must be prepared to act on the causes they champion.

Ready to make a change?

Marketing today means brands must stand for something. At a time when transparency is key for building trust with consumers, purpose-led brands need to know their audience and understand what matters to them. Brands affecting change in a positive way is a good thing, but actions speak louder than words; building value through your brand values can help to make the world a better place.