Case StudiesContent Strategy

Should your brand take a stand on social issues in its marketing?

By January 28, 2020 No Comments

Causes have effects.

From clothing giant Patagonia to cosmetics company Lush, brands have been leveraging emotionally charged social issues in their marketing for decades.

While these brands have strong pedigree in their causes and live them well, it’s fair to say the practice is rife among companies that don’t do it so well – digging their claws into causes that offer them micro moments of feelgood marketing.

But at what cost to the brand and to the cause they are leveraging?

Why brands have an appetite for a cause

Research from consumer trends analysts Mintel shows consumers are frothing for it.

They point to a trend they are calling the Lazy Consumer, whereby consumers look to outsource their ethical habits to brands willing to do it for them. Ethical skincare, food production, retail electricity, fashion – the list is long, with up to 32% of people across APAC happy to pay for brands to take care of the social goodness for them, according to the research from Mintel.

Sustainability is of course a huge issue for consumers, but it’s not just green products and services they are chasing. Brands that call out human rights issues and animal cruelty are highly sought, while just recently many companies have added equality for LBGTQ people into their narratives.

Some brands do an amazing job of it. Many simply can’t.

Take this beautiful story from Renault, for example. Stunningly shot, incredible narrative, but ultimately a terrible alignment to their values. It’s like saying “we love gay rights and a free aircon upgrade”.

Gaining brand affinity from social issues is an all-in activity, sometimes and in many cases at the cost of profits.

The purists at ad agencies pretty much hate doing it, but they are guilty of speaking too harshly of the practice.

Most will acknowledge that if the shoe fits, it’s fine to wear it. It’s just that the shoe rarely fits for long.

It’s possible their derision of it sits mostly in the constraints it places on their creative output, being tethered to a message.

But getting past that, it does pay for brands to take a cautious approach. The damage taking a stand on a social issue can place on a brand that doesn’t truly live that cause can be devastating, both in money terms and brand affinity.

The bad ones

The businesses – from coffee shops to multinationals – leveraging the Australian bushfire crisis is a shocker. No one is against a business donating money to people in need. That’s fine. But when “a dollar from every sale” or “our staff put some cash together” or anything that clearly relies on publicising that a consumer giving them cash will prompt a donation is just garbage for a brand.

Australia’s big mining companies have donated a few million to the Australian Red Cross to help fire victims, despite their activities over the past decades contributing to the environmental degradation that has helped fuel the fires. Yes, that cash is helpful, but it doesn’t align with their values in any way. Why not spend that cash on going above and beyond what they already do when mitigating the environmental effects of their business? There is way more effective marketing capital to be gained for the business with that approach.

One of the obvious case studies is Gillette’s toxic masculinity campaign. Many loved its message; others called for boycotts and ridiculed the brand. Whether the brand truly lived its message is another question. The public went mental: right-wing commentators had a hissy fit, as did a lot of consumers. The brand’s accountants definitely hated it after it suffered some huge write-downs for the year ($US5.2 billion loss).

What it does show is cause-aligned marketing can unleash valuable messages, but at the cost of profits. You and I may see that as noble. I doubt Gillette’s parent company, Procter & Gamble, views it the same way.

The ugly ones

Australia’s banks are just shockers. Look at their positioning around campaigns post-royal commission and the narratives are almost scandalous to the point of satire.

Commonwealth Bank’s Better For You position feels like an affliction of Stockholm Syndrome on its customers. I imagine a Colonel Hans Landa-style banking executive smiling and whispering, “We’re better for you,” before stubbing out a French cigarette on your debit card.

But mix that with its purpose-led appeal where it wants you, the consumer, to donate money to drought-affected communities.

It raised $8 million last year for the cause. But just so you know, Commbank is spending nearly $1 billion to win back consumer trust post-royal commission, which would be bloody lovely for drought ravaged communities.

It even announced earlier in 2019 that it would have thermal coal investments off its books by 2030. But those investments were pretty much already off its books (a paltry $578 million exposure compared with its $215 billion total business), and goes nowhere near explaining the bank’s exposure to fossil fuel energy and mining investments, as well as gas and other climate change related industries.

The big question with banks is do consumers care? Most research shows yes. Revenue figures back that up, with a drop for most of them. Will it matter this year when the royal commission becomes a distant memory? My best guess is probably not. The big banks are safe havens for many – but that doesn’t make their cause marketing effective when it is so clearly flawed.

The good ones

Take your pick. A host of brands do a great job at living the cause they push. Patagonia’s environmental activism exists in every cell of its business; Lush Cosmetics’ dedication to ending animal testing is a truly actionable cause they lead on; Who Gives A Crap sells toilet paper to build toilets in Third World countires; Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign (though you may disagree with me on that one); Penzeys Spices’ CEO calling Trump a racist (twice) and subsequently experiencing a sales spike (twice) because of it. The list goes on.

Regardless of the examples, the common thread is that these brands all practise what they preach, accept the profitability that offers them, and they can back up their claims at every step.

That’s the true effect of living a cause.