sparks & honey, a tech-led cultural consultancy, analyzes culture every day in order to identify emerging shifts and help organizations navigate these changes. In doing so, over the last year, never before have we witnessed so many brands lean into social causes. As exciting as this has been, and despite brands' well-intentions, unfortunately not all have hit the mark.
Increasingly informed, distrustful and impassioned, many are looking to brands to lead change — yet remain skeptical of brands’ actions or in some cases inaction. Capable of seeing through hallow promises or recognizing conflicting doublespeak, consumers' expectations have never been higher.
As a result, some brands today are coming to the harsh realization that table-stakes exist and execution is more important than effort. Some campaigns meant to enhance society and entice consumers are ultimately pushing them away and undermining intentions. This is frequently due to poor judgement, oversights, and lack of cultural understanding.
Given our cultural climate, we should acknowledge these social cause faux pas in order to prevent future offenses. Having critically studied both winners and losers in this space, there are several elements a brand should consider before participating in a given cause.
1. Doing vs. Saying
Example: New Balance partnered with the Boston Department of Conservation and Recreation to snow plow trails along the Charles River, supporting local infrastructure and allowing runners and walkers to get outside and exercise. Rather than merely talking, New Balance physically did something.
An organization who generously donates to a social issue today risks being labeled as an ally rather than one who can take action. Arms crossed, consumers are asking, "What can you do beyond throwing money at the problem from the sidelines?" It's critical to recognize that verbally or financially taking a stand is sometimes not enough. Words may be powerful, but action is unparalleled. How can an organization physically and actively lean in and make the difference that they want to see?
2. Deep Understanding
Example: Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of successfully participating in social issues, recently hiring a Corporate Activism Manager. According to Jamie Henn, cofounder of 350.org, “What makes Ben & Jerry’s unique is the time and energy they put into connecting with grassroots groups. They’re not looking to just write a check: They want to understand the issue, get engaged with groups on the ground, and support the work that really matters.”
With a myriad of societal issues at our feet, spanning sustainability, mental health, pride and inequality, we must acknowledge the intricacies of each. Genuine comprehension, long-term investment, and thoughtful engagement is paramount. Taking the time to empathetically recognize the true pain points of a particular issue is required before taking any action. To an organization's detriment, participation without careful reflection reveals itself.
3. License to Engage
Example: What does banking have to do with climate change? Well, Swedish fintech company Doconomy found a logical way to engage, launching a credit card, which tracks the CO2 emissions of purchases, and caps the climate impact of users' spending. While not at first natural, they successfully devised their license to participate.
Before engaging in any issue, a brand must recognize their connection to the topic and the power of their voice. An organization must ask themselves, "What's our role in this story, and do we have the license to engage?" If there’s not an immediate tie, can it be made? When brands are caught playing without permission or strenuously, their efforts can be perceived as inauthentic or forced. One should ask, “Is the issue core to the brand's business or values — and if not, how can we engage appropriately?”
4. Selfless - Not Selfishness
Example: Patagonia created WornWear.com, a site which takes idle Patagonia clothing from closets, and cleans and repairs it for others to purchase. Patagonia selflessly developed a program to alter consumption habits, arguably antithetical to their own bottom line.
When a brand engages in an issue outside their lane or inappropriately, they open themselves to the criticism of being deemed opportunistic. Many are seeing social issues as cultural currency, which is simply the wrong approach. Audiences aren’t afraid to call out brands. While it's crucial for organizations to lean in, their participation shouldn’t feel as if they're exploiting an issue for mere financial gain. How can a brand lean into something relevant, and make it about the cause, not entirely about themselves?
As a part of sparks & honey’s proprietary and quantified trends taxonomy, the Elements of Culture, we've distinguished two unique trends which speak to the rise of organizations stepping up to lead social change: Brand Activist & Brand Civil Servant. And according to Q™, our cultural intelligence system, we've witnessed the growth of both of these Elements of Culture by analyzing over 24,000,000 signals spanning social posts and headlines. These Elements of Culture have swelled in reach from 2018 to today and are projected to continue to grow into 2020. Our forecast: brands have big shoes to fill as we continue to look up to them.
With all this said, brands should not feel intimidated by these trends or new demands, nor should they feel discouraged to participate. However, as countless efforts are being misinterpreted, spawning backlash rather than celebration, it should be a brand's priority to consider the nuance, delicacy and context of today's social issues.