Guest post by Colleen O’Day, a digital marketing manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health and K-12 education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.
Budweiser wades into the hot-button issue of immigration restriction with a Super Bowl ad that recounts the story of the company’s German-born founder.
The Marriott hotel chain, which has deep ties to the Mormon Church, endorses same-sex marriage and launches a marketing campaign aimed at gay and lesbian travelers.
Audi unveils a TV spot called “Daughter” that addresses the gender pay gap head on. It ends with the tagline, “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.”
Are these companies selling products, or peddling political platforms? It isn’t always easy to tell.
Forget the old adage that “sex sells.” The current consumer zeitgeist demands that brands be socially conscientious, authentic and activist. Studies show that perceived quality stills matters more than any other factor in purchasing decisions. But consumers are becoming increasingly socially aware — and they expect the same from the companies they patronize.
More than half of consumers, for instance, now consider themselves to be environmentally conscious, according to a report from Forrester Research, the marketing research firm. That’s up from 42 percent in 2014 — a jump of 25 percent. The share of people who say they pay attention to political and scientific news has also risen.
That means brands are expected to stake out positions on current social, moral, religious and political issues. These days, consumers have assumed the watchdog role traditionally held by regulators, calling out violators of good corporate stewardship, according to Jim Nail, a principal analyst at Forrester. Neutrality is a luxury the companies can’t afford.
For brands that can channel the new consumer mindset with finesse, the dividends can be huge. For the clumsy ones, it can be a marketing mine field.
Exhibit A for social-justice marketing gone awry is this year’s Pepsi ad with model Kendall Jenner, whose tone-deaf attempt at tribute to the #BlackLivesMatter movement drew swift backlash. Even Dove, which has long won plaudits for ads featuring women of all sizes, misfired spectacularly with a spot for its body wash that showed a black woman taking off her shirt and morphing into a white woman.
It’s not a stretch to think that had the Dove and Pepsi campaigns come from ad agencies with a healthy mix of African-American professionals, someone could have flagged the unintended racial implication that white equals clean. Or squashed the ham-handed attempt to appropriate a protest movement against biased policing to sell soda.
The MSW@USC, the online masters in social work program at the University of Southern California, developed a Diversity Toolkit to facilitate the kind of candid discussions that can help groups assess their homogeneity and to pinpoint any diversity blind spots.
Displays of corporate conscience still doesn’t come naturally to many brands. Sometimes, events force their hands. Following revelations that Bill O’Reilly paid out millions of dollars to settle multiple sexual harassment complaints, activists pushed for advertisers to dump the Fox News host. The boycott soon led to an exodus by Allstate, Mercedes-Benz, Glaxo, BMW and dozens of other heavyweight corporations.
The lesson: It doesn’t matter that sexual harassment has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals or luxury sedans. Inaction equals complicity, at least in some consumers’ minds.
Corporate Citizenship and the Bottom Line
The ultimate imperative behind mixing morality and commerce is to enhance the brand’s reputation and financial benefit.
Airbnb managed to turnaround a potential public-relations debacle after a series of reports of alleged discriminatory practices involving the online house-sharing site. Guests who had distinctively black names were less likely to have their reservations accepted by the hosts. And rooms rented out by nonwhite hosts commanded lower rates.
Airbnb quickly put in place anti-discrimination safeguards. It also commissioned an evocative ad titled “Accept” that highlighted the many multi-ethic faces of its guests and employees. Just months later, after Donald Trump’s election, Airbnb deftly repurposed the ad. This time dubbed “We Accept,” it helped cement the company’s pledge to diversity and inclusion at a time of heightened racial tensions.
The Harvard Business Review touts Brita as a case study on how inventive marketing can meld social benefit with business growth. Faced with declining sales for tap-water filters, Brita’s managers decided to reposition their product as a greener alternative to bottled water.
The company took aim at an important societal problem — the enormous volumes of plastic waste ending up in landfills and garbage patches in the ocean — and turned the old standby, pitcher water, into an environmentally superior beverage. That strategy paid off with double-digit sales growth.
The article’s authors caution that linking brands to a social need can be a fraught choice. It has to produce genuine benefits for all stakeholders, including customers, the company and the larger society. But done right, strategic acts of corporate generosity can be highly successful.