Branding with a Cause: Knowing When the Risk is Worth the Reward

Posted on by Jeff Meleski

Brands can connect in powerful, emotional ways with consumers through support of social responsibility or political causes. Brands can also infuriate, confuse, and drive some consumers away. Should your brand take a stand?

social responsibility
A 2017 Cone Study revealed that 87 percent of U.S. consumers will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about.

Kellogg’s partnership with GLAAD for the recent #SpiritDay garnered primarily an enthusiastic response. Their “All Together” cereal box was available for sale only in the Kellogg’s café in New York City for the day (proceeds went to GLAAD). The purple boxes were also on display at a GLAAD celebrity-studded concert later that evening. Social media took over from there.

Was it a half-hearted stunt? Was it a part of a broader strategy to support LGBTQ youth and make their heritage cereal brands relevant to today’s youth? Regardless of the intent, there was significant risk to the Kellogg’s brand. Certainly, not all of Kellogg’s consumers will support their #SpiritDay or LGBTQ stance. Knowing when the risk is worth the reward is a matter of doing your homework, first.

In today’s environment, all brands need to seriously consider not just what they stand for, but what they will take a stand on. A 2017 Cone Study revealed that 87 percent of U.S. consumers will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, and 76 percent will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.


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Start with Values
If you understand the values of your target market and demonstrate (authentically) how your brand shares those values, you can generate effective marketing outcomes.

The alignment of consumer and brand values is not new. Compatibility is one of three components necessary to create a strong consumer-brand relationship.

Just like in human relationships, compatibility between consumers and brands occurs when consumers recognize that a brand shares important values, priorities, personality traits, both as who they are on the inside, and who they aspire to become. Brands unable to achieve this lose advantages such as preference, pricing and recommendation.

While there are many ways to build compatibility, the intense emotions inherent in some social and political causes make this marketing tactic particularly powerful and risky.

So, how do you know if building compatibility through shared social-political values is an appropriate and effective lever for your brand? If you want to align your brand successfully on social-political values, you should first have solid answers to these three questions:

1. Is there evidence that consumers perceive social-political values as a pertinent aspect of your brand?

Many brands have no discernable stance on social or political issues. Apart from corporate social responsibility, brands can find ways to be compatible with their consumers, such as having a “good fit” on personality traits.

It is possible to increase the importance of shared values in brand choice. However, current perceptions can dictate the degrees of freedom your brand has to establish new associations. Here are three other food brand examples:
Newman’s Own began with an audacious pledge in 1982 to donate 100 percent of profits to charity. Now numbering more than 300 products, the master brand has significant leeway to take on new causes, assume stronger positions, and even support adjacent political issues.

Tanka Bar, created by Native American Natural Foods, uses buffalo protein produced by American Indians. A portion of profits restore their communities and buffalo preserves. Their social cause is their entire raison d’être. Reducing or removing the social cause from their positioning is virtually impossible.

Hellmann’s—a 100-year+ brand facing negative health perceptions and declining sales—could have easily assumed they had no leeway to take a social stance with their consumers. By staying true to the brand’s positioning (Real Mayonnaise), they committed to a Real Food Movement. That commitment has persisted for more than 10 years.

2. Do consumers use or buy your brand in a public manner?

A brand can deliver significant value and meaning in consumers’ lives beyond its primary functional benefits. A strong brand can contribute to self-identity and connect consumers to a broader community.

This self-identification function is magnified if consumption is publicly visible and shareable with others. Associating oneself with a brand can state to the outside world ideas about who you are, what you stand for, and what you aspire to be. “Starbucks understands that in 2018, it is less about the drink itself than it is about who the drink makes you—on Instagram, and thus in real life.”

3. Can consumers assign social or political differences between brands in your category?

While mapping the competitive landscape is key to any brand strategy, we often fail to recognize, much less understand, how consumers perceive brands through the lenses of values, ethics, and social and political stances.

If consumers don’t perceive differences on values within your competitive set, then values are effectively irrelevant in brand choice. But, if a brand in your category suddenly takes a strong social or political stance, it can change the playing field, often irreversibly. A recent study shows how the impact of competitive framing is intensified if the framing is based upon “politicized consumption.”

How Kellogg’s chooses to deepen and broaden their commitment to LGBTQ and the universal value of belonging remains to be seen. If handled successfully, a deeper and more powerful emotional connection with consumers will certainly frustrate their competitors.

All combined, answers to these three questions can minimize risk and maximize the rewards of taking a social or political stance. Demonstrating how your brand is compatible with consumers—via shared values—is a powerful lever. Understanding the emotions behind your core consumers’ values are what give this form of marketing its fundamental power.
Jeff Meleski is CEO at Coherency. He can be reached at  jmeleski@coherency.com.

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