PSA: Brands can no longer be impartial
Published: July 19, 2022
The pandemic fundamentally shifted the way brands talk to consumers. The influx of the economy and extreme political polarization, accelerated by the pandemic, increasingly influenced consumers to shop based on their social values - actualizing when protestors took to the streets over racial injustice after the murder of George Floyd.
The socially conscious consumer isn't a new concept, first coming to fruition in the 1820s during the free produce movement. Studies reveal that customers acquire a heightened social consciousness after significant historical and cultural movements. Belief-driven shoppers will change their purchasing behavior based on a brand's stance - mandating changes on long-standing issues, demanding more from brands than just their product's features, or switching/boycotting a brand if it doesn't meet their needs.
Today, this concept is becoming increasingly popular among consumers, particularly with the help of COVID. According to the Conscious Consumer Spending Index, socially responsible spending increased in 2021, up 25% from the year before. And a study by Unilever found that one-third of consumers base their purchases on a company's social and environmental performance. More than three-fourths of Americans say they feel better when buying sustainably produced products. With this revealing information, it's no surprise that more brands are taking the initiative to tackle social issues. However, keeping in mind, it’s important for brands to be purposeful and head-on when engaging in societal issues. Audiences may find companies more credible when they speak out on issues that align with employees, customers, and stakeholders' values.
Companies must be authentic - tackling issues that align with their brand's values. Kanar's 2021 Media Trends and Predictions report forewarns companies to remain genuine when speaking out about critical social issues, "the raison d’être of brands like Patagonia, Veja, and The Beauty Counter is intrinsic, whereas campaigns from other companies might be perceived as opportunistic or insincere." We all remember the infamous Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner. In the commercial, Jenner hands the cold beverage to a smiling police officer as an 'offer of peace' during a protest. The multinational beverage company faced a ton of backlash, with disgruntled audiences saying the campaign was trivializing the BLM movement.
Repeatedly Communicate Values
Real commitment and authenticity when speaking out about social issues start with consistency. Putting social values and mission at the forefront of a brand's business model shows seriousness and supportiveness. If there is a misalignment with the cause, the public will view a company's announcement as artificial and unethical.
A brand that has stayed consistent and socially responsible since it opened in the 1980s is Ben and Jerry's. The company's core values include protecting and restoring the environment, achieving equity, opportunity, and justice for communities across the globe, and investing in historically marginalized communities. Ben and Jerry's have shown time and time again that the company's values align with their commitments by taking action such as becoming the first Fairtrade Certified ingredients ice cream maker in the world, creating the Ben & Jerry's Foundation to give back to their communities, and offering grants for social justice programs, and issuing the strongest corporate statement on Black Lives Matter during the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Walk the Walk
A company's first priority before addressing social problems is to look within its own company. Brands need to handle internal practices such as fair and consistent treatment of employees, maintaining workplace diversity, and addressing racial tensions and inequity. According to a Mckinsey article, a company must reappraise its core to find purpose. Although it takes deep reflection and company reevaluation, the outcome will drive an organization forward and create clearly defined values, benefitting a brand in the long run.
More than ever, brands can no longer be neutral in today's interconnected and reactive world. Brands that sit on the sidelines and do not make a difference will not advance internally or externally. By being purposeful and active with their social value initiatives, socially responsible companies can bolster their reputation, boost customer loyalty, and lure top-tier employees.