Brands Take a Stand II: Strategies That Stick

Large group of people raising hands at a rally

Today’s consumers, particularly younger ones, want to see companies be more human, take more risks, and speak out on social and political issues relevant to their brand values. However, as discussed in our previous blog, “When Brands Take a Stand,” doing so can be a tricky business for even the most sophisticated organizations.

Is simply speaking out enough? Do you need to be a huge corporation or able to afford a Super Bowl-esque ad budget to spark a conversation? How do you make sure your message doesn’t fall flat? I sat down with Tier One co-founder and managing partner, Sue Parente, to discuss common missteps to avoid and key strategies to keep in mind when making the most of your social issues campaign.

What challenges do brands face when they engage in social/political conversation?

Brands need to consider a number of factors before deciding to wade into a social issue. First, it needs to understand and be prepared for the fact that not everyone is going to agree or like what it has  to say. Before jumping in, look at the issue from every angle. How will others hear the message? What ideas and images does it conjure for them? Skipping this step risks alienating whole portions of the population, customers, investors, or even employees. A brand needs to know its audiences and make sure its values are in sync with the majority of its customers and employees.

Second, if the conversation it is looking to start or the cause it wants to champion isn’t consistent with the brand’s voice and value proposition, then it’s not likely to be convincing. The campaign needs to make sense based on who the brand is and what it stands for as a business. Otherwise, it risks looking self-serving and nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Lastly, before taking on an issue, brand executives and their communicators need to consider whether they can sustain potential negative feedback. Social media can magnify any campaign flaw, so it’s important to weigh all of the risks and feel confident the risk is worth taking and will have the desired outcome for both the brand and the issue it’s seeking to support.  

Are some topics safer to get behind than others?

Quality healthcare, education, feeding the poor, taking care of our veterans, and sheltering the homeless are just a few of the many causes most people can rally around and many would consider less risky. The problem? Specifically because they are deemed “safe,” these tend to be the issues other brands gravitate to, making it hard for an individual brand’s efforts to have a big impact. Unless a brand can bring a unique and creative solution to any of them, it runs the risk of being drowned out in the sea of corporations taking a similar position.

If a brand’s communications are handled deftly around one of the more controversial, hot-button issues, however, it affords a greater opportunity for differentiation, and consumers often reward companies for their courage.

What are some strategies brands can use to make the most of their campaigns?

Make it Personal

Nothing adds authenticity to a social issue campaign faster than getting personal with your audience. Verizon’s All Our Thanks campaign, which supports the Gary Sinise Foundation, is a great example of this. Its Super Bowl ad kicked things off with the tagline, “First responders answer the call. Our job is to make sure they can get it.” Viewers were then directed to There, they could hear personal stories from NFL athletes and coaches who had been saved by these everyday heroes — grounding the campaign in real, relatable stories —  and raise money for the foundation by sharing on social. Of course, not every brand has access to a professional sports league, but there are plenty of ways to tie your brand to a social issue, like sharing personal stories from your leadership team, customers, or employees via video, blog posts, or social shares.

 Keep it Consistent With Your Brand Purpose

Actions really do speak louder than words. Don’t just preach it — you must live or enable the change you want to see. In Bumble’s "The Ball is in Her Court" Super Bowl spot featuring Serena Williams, the tennis champion encourages women to, “make the first move in work, in love, and in life.” Because the Bumble dating app is all about putting the woman in control, this ad is a perfect example of a brand aligning its purpose with the larger social message of helping women use the power they already have.

Go for Heartfelt or Humorous

Evoking emotion or making viewers laugh are two ways to get a brand’s message across in a memorable way. Bud Light nailed it in fall 2018 when it took on the plight of the Cleveland Browns fans and provided free beer to everyone in the city when the team’s long-standing losing streak ended. More than just the free suds, Clevelanders (and football fans around the country) appreciated the humor in that move, which made the most of a lighter, but engaging, shared social topic.

Use Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool brands can use to take a stand. And although it may no longer be the freemium option that it once was, with the right strategy in place, it doesn’t need to be as big of an investment as other campaign options. For example, the Canadian telecom Bell annually executes and promotes its mental health campaign almost entirely on social media. When followers post #BellLetsTalk on any social media platform, Bell donates five cents to various Canadian mental health programs, making it easy for anyone with a social media account to get involved. The kind of accessibility social allows can be key to keeping your audience engaged and on board.

Are there any particular strategies to avoid?

Approach celebrity spokespeople with caution. This is a tricky (and expensive) tactic. Most people know celebrities live comfortably and perhaps don’t deal with the same issues the general population does. For the message to ring true, the celebrity needs to have actual sincerity and a connection to the issue. If either is missing, then it can feel more like the famous person is preaching to vs inspiring us (e.g. the Kendall Jenner Pepsi … and Proactiv missteps). 

When building a smart brand strategy around social issues, it all comes back to how the issue relates to your brand and how you tell that aspect of your story. Being consistent with who your brand is will ensure that the stand you take will continue that story, rather than sidestep into confusing and potentially insincere territory. As your brand takes a stand, keep the strategy personal, actionable, sociable, and tone-conscious, and you’ll be better positioned to make the difference your audiences will appreciate.

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