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Three questions brands should ask before speaking out on social issues

by Jacqi Levy
    UNiDAYS x AdAge: Gen Z Marketing Playbook

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    Conscious capitalism, or the idea that brands need to stand for something other than profits, has reached critical mass. Here are some things you should keep in mind before embarking on a socially-conscious marketing campaign. 


    Conscious capitalism is on the rise. And brands are increasingly feeling the pressure to speak out on social and political issues.  In fact, a full 83% of retailers believe that failing to take a stand can negatively affect their bottom line.  

    But, tempering this enthusiasm are numerous examples of socially-conscious brand campaigns that have been met, at best, with mixed reviews, and at worst, all-out, nightmarish PR backlash. Take Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, Dove’s body-positive packaging and Gillette’s The Best Men Can Be ad, just to name a few.

    A recent survey by UNiDAYS x Ad Age found that Gen Zs are very mixed on whether or not they trust brands more when they take a stance on political issues—34 percent answered yes, while 40 percent said no.

    So what does this mean? By no means should it discourage brands from speaking up. But it does mean that brands should think long and hard about the topics they choose to speak out on—and why. If you’re thinking about taking a stand, ask yourself these three questions before you do, or you might become one of marketing’s cautionary tales.  

    What is your brand narrative?

    When it comes to formulating a point of view on social issues, your brand narrative is the best place to start. One of the keys to finding relevance with Gen Z is being crystal clear on what your brand stands for, and weaving that identity into everything you do. If you don’t have clarity on what you value, how can you expect your customers to be clear on what you stand for?

    Billie, a Gen Z-focused, direct-to-consumer shaving company, has a very strong, female-centric brand narrative. Built into the very core of their brand is their fight against the “pink tax”, a “sexist pricing strategy” whereby women pay more for certain products, like razors and personal care items, solely based on their gender.

    Another example of a socially active brand with a well-defined narrative is Patagonia. Given that this outdoor apparel company was founded by a rock climber, environmentalism has always played a key role in the company’s mission. Patagonia’s passion for protecting the planet’s natural resources permeates everything they do, from their sustainable business practices to their support for environmental volunteerism.

    Can your brand speak authentically on the issue at hand?

    When it comes to taking a stand, it’s important to to choose an issue that aligns closely with your brand narrative. Customers are more likely to perceive your brand as credible and authentic when you take a stance on issues that align with your brand’s mission and reputation in the market.

    For example, when Billie launched Project Body Hair, a campaign that speaks out about the way female body hair is portrayed (or rather, intentionally not portrayed) in shaving ads, it was a natural extension of their brand narrative. So, no one batted an eyelash.  

    Going even further, Patagonia’s The President Stole Your Land campaign ventured into political territory. While getting entangled in politics could have been extremely controversial, it worked for Patagonia because it was a natural extension of the company’s values. (You can imagine, however, that if they spoke out on female body hair, they’d be a little less credible.)

    Is the issue important to your core audience?

    At the end of the day, it’s important to choose a cause, not just because it is trending in the media, but because it is a shared concern of both your company and your consumer. One of the key differences between Billie and Gillette is that Billie’s audience is made up of like-minded consumers who applaud their approach, whereas in attempting to reposition their brand, Gillette seems to have alienated a portion of their current consumer base.

    The lesson here is that if your brand is regularly controversial, you might be able to get away with featuring Colin Kaepernick in an ad. However, if you typically shy away from making headlines, you might want to stick to less emotionally-charged subjects that are still hyper-focused on what matters to your audience. It simply depends on the particulars of YOUR brand.

    Why some brands speak out and succeed, while others speak out and fail

    The Pepsi and Dove ads mentioned above were highly criticized because they weren’t credible. While both companies spoke out in different ways, the campaigns had one thing in common: they both felt more like marketing tactics than real activism. Both came across as having an ulterior motive, rather than being true outward expressions of business values.

    As for Gillette, while they succeeded with some audiences, they clearly missed the mark with one of their core demographics. The jury seems to be out on whether this was an overall success or a failure—only time tell will tell.

    At the end of the day, standing up doesn’t have to be political or extreme.  It does, however, have to be driven by values that are true to your brand and shared with your audience—not by next quarter’s revenue targets.

    As one Patagonia spokesperson said, “You can’t reverse into a mission and values through marketing.”

      UNiDAYS x AdAge: Gen Z Marketing Playbook


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