Aligning your brand with social causes: a risky sport or shrewd marketing?

ADOTAS | October 31, 2018

Supporting a social or political cause can be a powerful way for brands to connect with consumers emotionally. It can also infuriate them, disgust them, and drive them away. Should your brand try it?

The Kaepernick campaign was a risky maneuver. To some casual observers, the campaign looked like a gratuitous attention-grab, linking Nike to a controversial figure. But a closer examination reveals a strategy-led effort to position their brand more closely to their target market.[i]

Indeed, understanding the values of your target market and demonstrating how your brand shares those values (if indeed they are shared) can be an effective marketing tool. Here at Coherency, we call this alignment of brand and consumer values “Compatibility.” Compatibility is just one of three key components essential to creating a strong consumer-brand connection.

Compatibility is a powerful approach that leverages consumers’ emotions to enhance that connection. It can be created through shared values, priorities, personality, and political/social causes. However, the intense emotions inherent in political and social causes gives this particular approach to building Compatibility unusually strong power and risk.

So, how do you know if this lever – finding alignment on shared social values – is an appropriate and effective tool for your brand? Let’s look more closely at what makes for successful Compatibility on political and social values.

1. Do consumers perceive political values to be a pertinent aspect of your brand?

The first step is to understand how consumers perceive your brand today. Political or social values aren’t always a relevant issue. Many brands are apolitical, devoid of any discernable stance on political or social issues. These brands may still find ways to be highly compatible, such as having a “good fit” on personality traits.

Of course, marketing can affect the relevance of values in the consideration of your brand. But consumers’ current perceptions may dictate the degrees of freedom in establishing new associations with your brand. Let’s consider three apparel brands:

  • Patagonia has an authentic, longstanding tradition of environmental causes. The brand has significant leeway to take on new causes, make stronger positions, and even support adjacent political issues.
  • The small company Freeset employs impoverished Indian women to make bags and tees, providing a path out of the sex trade. Their social cause is their entire raison d’être. Reducing or removing the social cause from their positioning is virtually impossible.
  • Old Navy is void of a perceived social or political stance. Making shared values a pertinent aspect of their brand may be possible, but that will be an uphill battle, fraught with challenges.

2. Do consumers buy or use your brand publicly?

A brand can play an important role in consumers’ self-identity. It can add significant value and meaning in consumers’ lives beyond its primary functional benefits. A strong brand can even connect consumers with a broader community and help them define their self-narrative.

However, this self-identification function is magnified if consumption is publicly visible. Associating with a brand makes a statement to the outside world 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.”[ii] In contrast to my Starbuck’s “badge,” I may not care about the political leanings of my toilet paper.

Having shared political values can be twice as impactful in categories with a high level of publicly visible consumption. For Nike, the prominence of athletic gear and sports stars on TV makes the delicate balance of stating its values ever more critical.

3. Do consumers see political differences between brands in your category?

Of course, understanding the competitive landscape is a key part of building a brand strategy. However, we often fail to understand how consumers perceive brands through the lenses of values, ethics, and political/social stances.

If consumers don’t perceive differences between brands on values in a given category, then values are effectively irrelevant in brand choice. But if a brand in this same category suddenly takes a strong political stance, it is changing the playing field, often irreversibly. A recent study illustrated how the impact of competitive framing is intensified if the framing is based upon “politicized consumption.”[iii]

The Nike/Kaepernick campaign brought political values to the forefront, making them a (more) relevant aspect of competitive differentiation. Even if Adidas stays silent on the matter of standing during the national anthem, relative perceptions – conscious and subconscious – may have already changed.

These three questions work together to illustrate when a political or social stance may be right for your brand. Demonstrating how your brand is compatible with consumers – via shared values – can be a powerful lever. However, it’s the emotion behind those values that give this marketing lever its power, and also its risk.

Don’t let social/political marketing be a risky venture for your brand. Before taking on a social cause, understand the emotions behind your brand-consumer connection, and the role of Compatibility.

[i] Ritson, Mark (September 5, 2018). “This is Not a Question of Brand Purpose. This is a Question of Targeting.” LinkedIn.com.

[ii] Nethercutt, Zander (July 7, 2018). “People don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves.” Medium.com

[iii] Paharia, Neeru, Avery, Jill, and Keinan, Anat. “Framing the Game. How brands’ relationships with their competitors affect consumer preference. Strong Brands, Strong Relationships. Eds. Susan Fournier, Michael Breazeale, Jill Avery. Routledge, 2015.

Jeff Jacobs is SVP of Client Engagement at Coherency Marketing. He can be reached at smarkov@coherency.com.