2019 was the year when many media outlets and brands started to look seriously at cause marketing. 2020 is the year when it’s all blowing up, and companies are either making powerful social justice statements or throwing their logo on the social justice bandwagon and hoping no one notices there’s nothing behind it.
We’re convinced this time is the greatest opportunity for marketers to put their creative and analytical skills to use with a goal that most marketers never dreamed of: changing the world while doing our jobs. The challenge is to do it in a way that’s authentic, effective, and lasting.
Cause Marketing: Fix Your Corporate Foundation
Admittedly, most marketers aren’t part of setting the corporate structure for their companies. But we can challenge our workplaces to ‘put our money where our mouth is’ and start hiring more qualified minorities at every level.
Pamela Newkirk writes for Time that even though most corporations have made a Black Lives Matter statement, their boardrooms continue to be white. In the 29 years between 1985 and 2014, the number of Black men working in management for companies with 100 or more employees went from 3% to 3.3%. Around 4% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are people of color. Facebook—who’s spent millions on ‘diversity initiatives’—increased their proportion of Black and Hispanic employees from 8.4% to 9% between 2018 and 2019.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has apologized for not listening to players and condemned “systemic oppression of Black people” while the organization has mainly white coaches and executives, even though almost 70% of players are Black.
As Emma Mulcahy says in The Drum, “In a time where the immediacy of social media can be leveraged to call out a brand in a matter of seconds, marketers need to back up their cause communications with authentic actions.” Corporations can do their part by reflecting their audiences in their executives and employees. When Americans believe a brand is supporting a good cause, 91% are willing to switch to it. When they see things that appear to be unethical, 56% will stop buying from that brand. Salesforce has put significant research behind their 6 Principles of Inclusive Marketing, which they publish on their free online self-learning platform Trailhead. Their definition of inclusive marketing is powerful, and they highlight their responsibility in this way:
“We believe that our responsibility as marketers is to relay our brands’ messaging in a way that resonates with people from all backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, religion, ability, sexual orientation, or otherwise.”
Their inclusive values go all the way through the organization and reflect the authenticity of Salesforce’s statement—although they admit there is still more change needed. On their annual equality report, they show exactly how diverse each area of their organization is, where they’ve improved, and what they still need to do. Salesforce ranked #25 on Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity in 2019.
Clothing brand Patagonia is another company on Fortune’s list that has always been known for its authentic cause marketing. Writing for The Drum, Cameron Clarke notes, “Patagonia’s philosophy does not feel phony because it is not a retrofitted marketing affectation”.
There’s a strong correlation between the companies on Fortune’s list of best workplaces for diversity and the companies that are making a difference for social justice. And studies show companies that practice proactive corporate social responsibility (CSR) benefit financially. Back in 2011, Springer published results that showed SMEs who practiced CSR in the areas of shared vision, stakeholder management, and strategic proactivity were associated with improved financial performance.
Does Being “Woke” Matter?
In 2017, the Oxford dictionary updated its definition of ‘woke’ to include an adjective meaning “alert to injustice in society, especially racism”. But as Abas Mirzaei notes for Mumbrella, the term has been around for much longer. J. Saunders Redding used it in 1942 when writing about labor unions, and it’s been used through the decades by Black Americans.
“By September 2016… The phrase “stay woke” gained strength and became a symbol of movement and activism.” Brands have both succeeded and failed in their attempts to use “woke” marketing. And the term has also become commonly used to describe delusional conspiracy theorists.
Peter Adams suggests in his article about The year of ‘woke-washing’ that brands are using social justice issues to gain volume in their fight against disappearing, and “is symptomatic of a particularly misguided and media-hungry moment for the business.” When/if this is the case, consumers may be quick to see through the inauthenticity and turn to other brands.
Gen Z is a key target for social justice marketing, but without building up brand equity over time first, companies that try to be woke anger consumers and create a disconnect with the very audience they’re targeting. Adams writes of “a glut of campaigns that think in the short-term to chase awards instead of fulfilling a real need.”
Being aware matters, but only if the company has established itself as both principled and active over time. If social justice is a new area for a brand, it’s time to get onboard—not on a superficial bandwagon, but on a deep commitment to use marketing as a reflection of a brand’s true social justice and values based ambitions. It’s OK to start now, just be honest that you’re new to it, that you intend to do it right, and to watch what you do versus what you say.
Cause Marketing: What Not to Do
Let’s start with an ad that went viral for all the wrong reasons. Pepsi and Kendall Jenner of Kardashian fame set up a scene of protestors facing off against a line of police officers. Jenner transforms from high fashion to supermodel in jeans, walks up to a police officer, and cracks open a Pepsi, which she hands to him. Tone-deaf didn’t even begin to describe the message:
Pepsi pulled the ad within 24 hours, but it continues to grate on consumer’s consciousness.
In 2018, BrewDog launched its Pink IPA and labeled it a beer for girls. Their goal was to mock the male-dominated beer industry. Instead, they came across as shallow even while they claimed in a statement that it was intended as a “send-up of the lazy marketing efforts targeting the female market”. One comment on social media noted, “ironic use of sexism to sell a product is still use of sexism to sell a product.”
Although Dove has at times done a good job of inclusive advertising, they had a major fail in 2017 when they posted an ad (meant to advertise their body wash) where a Black woman removed her shirt to reveal a white woman as a before and after style image of the result of using the product. For many, the ad was reminiscent of racist ads of years past where black people tried to scrub their skin to become white. Dove quickly pulled the ad and apologized, but even the apology came across as insincere and led to questions about the company’s values that led to such an ad being approved in the first place.
On International Women’s Day in 2018, a McDonald’s in California flipped the golden arches on its sign upside down to become a ‘W’. The company was immediately called out for its failure to provide good working conditions for women, and claims of systemic sexual harassment.
The moral of these examples is that bandwagon social justice is a recipe for failure, not only in marketing, but in the broader picture of a world where more and more consumers are insisting on marketing with heart, soul, and history. And if your corporate values don’t align with a social justice campaign, don’t do it.
Cause Marketing Done Right
Fortunately, we have a plethora of examples of cause marketing done right. You can also follow AdAge’s regular updates here on what brands are doing in response to racial injustice.
In 2016, The Drum was reporting on Patagonia’s 100% For the Planet Black Friday campaign. By 2017, the company had donated over $74 million to sustainability causes, and their anti-consumer campaign ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ increased awareness of the environmental cost of the clothing industry and increased sales. Cameron Clarke wrote for The Drum that “What Patagonia has recognized is that doing good is good for business.” Every campaign is carefully considered, and the company has a strong directive for any agency it works with.
Airbnb aired their “We Accept” ad less than two weeks after the President closed borders to refugees, using their Super Bowl spot to share a beautiful message of belonging for everyone regardless of where they’re from, who they love, or who they worship. It gained the brand much positive traction and helped to reframe the company that had previously been accused of racial discrimination.
In 2017, rideshare company Lyft responded to Trump’s travel ban by pledging $1,000,000 to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and released a statement against the ban. In contrast, Uber’s CEO insisted on working with Trump, and #DeleteUber became a trend. Lyft followed up by offering passengers the chance to round up their fares and donate the difference to the ACLU, and in the next 18 months an additional $2,000,000 was donated. While one can argue about the politics, the marketing results are clear.
Many cause marketing campaigns are controversial—gaining pushback from consumers who don’t agree with a brand’s stance. But it’s not always the case. European lager Stella Artois ran a ‘Buy a Lady a Drink’ campaign (nominated for a Shorty Social Good award) saw the brand partner with water.org and actor Matt Damon. When the campaign began in 2015, every limited edition bottle purchase gave a month of clean water to women in their families in developing countries. Now, anyone can buy a Limited-Edition Stella Artois Chalice, which helps give five years of clean water to an individual in the developing world.
Calvin Klein’s Pride campaign’s star in 2020 is Jari Jones, a Black, transgender, queer, plus-size model, actress, and activist. You can’t miss her billboard in New York City, or the inclusive message Calvin Klein is sending that celebrates perhaps the most diverse group of models to date. The #proudinmycalvins campaign also includes Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar, trans gender queer YouTuber Chella Man, queer pop artist Gia Woods, and gay actor Tommy Dorfman. The campaign has also partnered with OutRight Action International its COVID-19 LGBTIQ+ Global Emergency Fund.
Perhaps the best-known example of cause marketing is Nike’s sponsorship of Colin Kaepernick. It was controversial to back a player who initiated the practice of kneeling during the national anthem, and there were some people who responded by burning their Nikes on social media. But it showed a brand willing to stand up for what it believed was right. And the backlash was small compared to Nike’s $6 billion earnings from the campaign. The point isn’t which political party a brand should support, but that brands should clearly know and understand what their values are and live them everyday, regardless of the short term consequences.
It seemed like Nike was done with Kaepernick, until they released a “For Once, Don’t Do It” ad on May 29, 2020 along with the hashtag #UntilWeAllWin. As Marketing Dive notes, “The message resonated so strongly that rival brand Adidas retweeted the message, extending its reach to a greater pool of consumers.”
The Brand Risk-Relevance Curve
This was created by Fortune 500 CMO Peter Horst and explained by Anna Bredava for Awario. As the diagram below shows, the risk of a negative reaction significantly increases as a brand moves towards a solid marketing strategy position:
This is a powerful lesson in marketing relevance. You can’t please everyone, and not being meaningful to your target audience makes you irrelevant to them.
Values are where we see a starting point for brands, but not necessarily a commitment to addressing social justice issues. When a brand moves too cautiously into expressing their purpose, “companies take on popular and uncontroversial issues and do not make any hot political statements”. It’s the risk equivalence of burying their head in the sand.
Then we move to Issues. Here, many brands “present controversial issues without taking a side.” Bredava uses the Heineken ad as a good example of this, showcasing people with opposing positions sitting down over a beer and talking in an open and engaging way. Their #OpenYourWorld campaign doesn’t take a clear stance on anything while bringing up nearly everything. This allows the brand to backtrack in any direction based on feedback, and their campaign is unlikely to face any real risk to the brand.
Finally, there’s Position, where a brand chooses a position—one that is almost certain to create a reaction—and publicly stands by it, often with advertising and supporting charities and cutting connections with influencers or advertisers. It’s at this place where a brand uses its platform to clearly state what they stand for and what they fight against. It has the most risk, but it can also bring the most benefit, as we saw in the examples above.
Practical Ways Businesses Can Support the Racial Justice Movement
Any company that threw up a black square on social media for #blackoutTuesday and then went back to business as usual is exhibiting tokenism and nothing more. As Ricardo Twumasi writes for The Conversation, there are practical ways businesses can “play a pivotal role in actively changing their workplaces” and move from bandwagon to real results:
Don’t send out vague statements about being committed to diversity. Change your policies and practices to become diverse. Be an anti-racist organization by “speaking out on and changing structural inequalities at work.” Strive for equality in all areas, including gender and ethnic group pay equality.
Sponsor refugees. Improve hiring practices by removing names from resumes, conducting diversity auditing, and advertising positions in places where you’ll attract a diverse talent pool. If your traditional hiring methods aren’t recruiting diverse applicants, change them.
Create a healthy, supportive work environment that encourages employees to safely speak out about racism and discrimination. Recognize that racism harms mental health and provide mental health services for all employees.
Finally, “If you feel like you don’t share diverse characteristics yourself talk to your colleagues about your privilege and how you can use it. You are still an important part of the conversation.”
Business has come a long way from the idea that our only obligation was to follow the law, and after that grow profits. We are connected to our customers and their experiences, and many people are facing discrimination and racism in our personal lives while trying to make a real difference through their businesses.
Becoming authentic, lifelong social justice marketers is one way we can use our careers and our businesses to work for an equal and just society. When we have a diverse corporate structure, good policies, and employees committed to good causes, better financials follow as a matter of course. That’s a powerful incentive to get off the bandwagon for good.