It’s never been more important for brands to be socially responsible. The disruptive nature of the pandemic has turned our attention to what businesses are doing to give back to their local communities, support employees remotely and adhere to social distancing guidelines. Because of this, it’s not surprising that social engagement has erupted as we wrangle the challenges facing us as a society, including equality and justice.
Consumers are using their wallets to vote for the future they want to live in, and they’re not afraid to take their business elsewhere if they’re unsatisfied with the social responsibility efforts made by a brand. In fact, six in ten consumers prefer to purchase products and services from businesses that stand for a purpose that reflects their own values and beliefs.
Whether it’s supporting Pride Month, celebrating NAIDOC Week, standing in solidarity with Naomi Osaka or joining the Black Lives Matter protests, there’s numerous movements that are close to the hearts’ of consumers. Although, that doesn’t automatically make them suitable for brand commentary in the public domain.
Here, we consider best practice and guidelines for brands seeking to publicly reveal their social conscience.
Supported by authentic effort
Consumers want businesses to address the social injustices confronting our world, including equality and climate change. However, at the same time, consumers are sceptical about ‘woke washing’ where businesses are leveraging these issues as marketing stunts, rather than genuine acts of activism and solidarity.
Consequently, brands are being denounced for inauthentic effort. In the case of Pride Month, many brands have been criticised for ‘rainbow washing’ where they use the rainbow colours or flag, but do not undertake any tangible work to support the LGBTQIA+ community.
It’s imperative for brands seeking to demonstrate their social conscience to consider what value they’re adding and what the desired outcome is. Corporate allies and advocates have an important role in society and can fight for meaningful change, although it must feel authentic to consumers and the public. This can be achieved through brand storytelling, with leaders revealing why they are so passionate about the cause and the brand’s journey to relevant acts of activism.
Drawing on Pride Month as an example, this could mean brand’s showcasing stories from the LGBTQIA+ community, using their money and platform to address real issues or education on the issues faced by the community.
Aligned with brand values
Before speaking out about social justice issues, businesses should ensure they have a clear track record of actively supporting the cause.
During last year’s #BLM movement, Ben & Jerry’s rallied against racial inequality and were vocal advocates of the movement. With decades of experience in campaigning for a range of social justice issues, such as refugee and human rights, climate change and gender equality, Ben & Jerry’s published one of the strongest public statements regarding the #BLM movement.
The brand went so far as to claim that police brutality “is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy”. Validating this with real action, Ben & Jerry’s published on its website a list with actionable steps to demolish white supremacy as an open source for other businesses and leaders to lean on.
Corporate activism must be reinforced with a brand’s values in order to feel authentic. In this case, Ben & Jerry’s had a robust history of educating employees and consumers about structural racism and inequality, is focused on diversifying the recruitment process and has created foundations to support important social causes. As a result, Ben & Jerry’s is a superb example of a business that’s corporate activism is intrinsically matched with its brand values.
Championed through action
In order to comment on social justice movements, brands must display real action to address the challenges and champion change.
After the chairman and fourth-generation heir of Barilla Pasta rebuked rainbow families during a press interview, subsequently causing widespread backlash, the CEO acted in response and stepped in. Rather than shying away from the controversy, the CEO leveraged the scandal as a catalyst for conversation and change within the company. In the space of a year, Barilla expanded health benefits for transgender workers and their families, donated to gay rights causes and featured a lesbian couple in online advertising and marketing content. Through this action, Barilla achieved a perfect score in the Human Rights Campaign’s list of employers who are LGBTQIA+ friendly and inclusive.
The speed at which Barilla overhauled its culture by unveiling new policies supported by action offers an example for other businesses. But a scandal isn’t always required to ensure that businesses are walking the walk and talking the talk when it comes to social justice advocacy.
Earlier this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka announced she was skipping all post-event conferences during the French Open to protect her mental health. She was fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension. In response, meditation app, Calm, pledged to pay the fines in support of the tennis player’s mental health message. Additionally, Calm matched the fine with a $15,000 donation to Laureus Sport in France, an organisation working in the mental health space to transform the lives of young people through the power of sport.
This is a compelling example of a brand putting their money where their mouth is while reinforcing its overall message that ‘mental health is health.’
More than ever before, it’s important for brands to be socially engaged and align with consumer values. In a time where consumers hold all the power, brands are challenged to remain relevant by demonstrating their commitment to a better future.
This means standing in solidarity with consumer ideals and important social justice movements. There is generally a fine line between brands doing the ‘right’ thing and being perceived as opportunistic so brands should be encouraged to carefully consider what value they can add and whether this is in tune with their actions. As a brand, get behind the movements that are important to your customers. And if unsure what these are, just ask.
David Fairfull is CEO and co-founder of Metigy.