How to champion change and leverage social stances in 2019

In this time of tribes, neutral is no longer an option. Over the past few years in particular, a number of social and political issues have become elephants trumpeting around every room in the country.

While brands have historically been skilled at sidelining these conversations, this year there’s reason to believe that those taking a stand on key social issues will win with consumers.

Some reluctance is warranted — we saw Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad dominate headlines in 2017, followed by an outpour of consumer opinion this past year over Nike’s choice to feature Colin Kaepernick in their own ads. It can seem as if the brands who do decide to roll the dice are forced into damage control. But despite the gamble, there’s new research to prove that consumers want to see brands speaking up and speaking out.

Sprout Social recently reported that two thirds of consumers want brands to engage in social and political issues, citing social media as the best avenue. And for those brands who are successful in taking this leap, it is less about cause-related marketing than it is about purpose-driven campaigns that motivate real change. A firm grasp on key social issues and a deeper understanding of those consumers that are affected will make a brand’s path to champion change increasingly authentic.

Know which issues not to speak on

Timing is everything; but so too is relevance — more so than ever before. A report from Morning Consult concluded that issues like civil rights, criminal justice reform, and LGBTQ rights are largely considered less controversial among consumers, whereas issues like abortion, anthem protesting, and immigration are. They also reported that gun control is “somewhere in the middle”, which could be an indication as to why TOMS was recently able to take a stand against gun violence and come out unscathed.

Generally speaking, brands are best suited to champion change choose issues that align with their mission, values and beliefs. From there, they can act as catalysts for change by evangelizing organizational investments or actions taken in support of the issue. This past month, Patagonia announced a plan to donate $10 million they received in tax breaks toward various environmental causes. The company’s donation is amplified in the wake of new climate change reports and subsequent dismissals of the findings at the highest levels of government. As an outdoor apparel company, Patagonia has a long history of advocating for environmental issues — so much so that stances like these have become woven into their brand fabric and become a corporate responsibility. They’re finding success in doing their part in a way that only their brand has. And not only do their consumers expect it, they reward them for it.

Have a deep understanding of customer segments

Edelman’s 2017 Earned Brand study, which surveyed 14,000 people across 14 different countries, found that 50% of global consumers are “belief driven”. Brands no longer have the luxury of lumping consumers into larger groups based solely on key demographics or psychographics. Consumers want brands to champion change related to those issues they care deeply about. For brands to take that stance successfully, they have to convince consumers that they care deeply about those issues too. And that starts with diving deeper into consumer sentiment and the complex reasons that influence their views.

In short, it’s no longer enough to know who your customers are and what they believe. Brands must know why they carry the beliefs that they do in order to win them over. They have to understand how customers interpret and talk about current events. The study from Edelman concluded that brands that lack a deep understanding consumer beliefs miss the chance to connect with those consumers and bring a new dimension to marketing beyond “purpose.”

Don’t talk about Trump

Though it can be difficult to get political these days without bringing Donald Trump into the conversation, it’s best for brands not to go there. The report from Morning Consult found that 30% of consumers will have a more favorable impression of your company if you issue a positive statement about Trump, compared to 32% if the statement is negative.

The truth is, regardless of what brands say about Trump, a majority of consumers will be either upset or disinterested. This has less to do with any particular issue and Trump’s influence on it, and more to do with partisan passion in increasingly polarized times. In short, when it comes to the content and messaging of a brands stance, the best strategy is to leave the Donald out of it.

Being an effective change champion

Brands should look at political and social conversations as an opportunity. Many compelling ad campaigns or PR initiatives can carry their own degree of risk, but ultimately, a brand that wants to stay relevant in 2019 has to be a part of society and actively take part in the dialogues that are happening within. And research has continued to show that it’s okay for brand to be a part of that conversation if it’s approached correctly. And sometimes it’s even been found that silence can be damaging.

At the end of the day, consumers want to see companies engage with the issues because they believe that companies have the resources and ability to act where government and media have not. Consumer confidence will continue to reward those brands that can effectively use their platforms to speak up, motivate, and champion change.