There’s no doubt that brands, and their marketers, should be on top of the zeitgeist, and indeed can play a big role in shaping it. It’s important to be mindful of issues affecting customers when producing content and campaigns, as well as being curious about industry developments and consumer issues.
Having your finger firmly on the pulse in this way is invaluable when it comes to building engagement and producing interesting content that’s likely to resonate with your target audience. This curiosity should be cultivated on a continual basis, as it helps to boost creativity and ultimately feeds into successful campaigns.
However, there is a broad variation in the approach that marketing teams take to this, with some intent on pushing the envelope at every opportunity and others much more averse to what they perceive as risky tactics and therefore sticking with more reliable formulas.
Overall, however, there is a growing trend towards major brands tackling serious and controversial societal issues, taking on major causes and bringing politics into their campaigns. Emotional branding also plays a big part in this. This has been seen in a few very notable recent cases, producing mixed results and reaction to say the least!
Cause marketing, or ethical marketing, is just that – brands and companies taking up causes in their marketing materials or bringing ethics to the fore in some way.
The Financial Times defines ethical marketing as: “A process through which companies generate customer interest in products/services, build stronger customer interest/relationships, and create value for all stakeholders by incorporating social and environmental considerations in products and promotions. All aspects of marketing are considered, from sales techniques to business communication and business development.”
The growing prevalence of cause marketing should come as no real surprise, given today’s increasingly sophisticated and conscientious audience. Many consumers want much more than frivolous humor and catchy slogans from advertising campaigns, with a strong desire to feel connected to a cause, something greater than themselves, something that can make a real difference to the world.
In particular, the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts are known for their support of socially active brands. Some brands are major advocates for certain causes, making it a core part of their identities.
Take Patagonia for example. The US clothing company has been dedicated to social issues and cause-based marketing for decades. Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of all its annual sales to the preservation of the natural environment. It has also helped to create a national park and promotes fair-trade certified wages for its supply chain workers.
In February 2017, the company led a boycott of the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah, because of the state of Utah’s introduction of legislation that would transfer federal lands to the state.
Therefore, Patagonia’s dedication to the environment is very much central to its identity, and it considers itself to be an “activist company”. It is a genuine champion for the environmental cause, consistently putting actions behind its words, which has created a very clear and positive brand identity. Many others have tried to achieve this kind of image, with mixed results.
We have seen some notable examples of cause-based marketing campaigns make a splash in recent times.
Procter & Gamble’s recent ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign for Gillette early in 2019 is very much a (controversial) case in point. Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and the spotlight on harassment and bullying by men, the Gillette ad challenges men to raise their standards and confront these negative patterns of behavior, labelled as ‘toxic masculinity’.
The company was very clear in their taking on of this immensely-wide cause, as stated on the campaign webpage:
“It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man… We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better… From today on, we pledge to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.”
As part of the campaign, Gillette committed to donate $1 million per year for the next three years to non-profit organizations executing programs in the US “designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal best and become role models for the next generation”.
It’s certainly a powerful message, but has drawn criticism, and provoked a mixed public reaction. Many have praised it for taking a stance and tackling these important issues, while many men have found it offensive, and following a trend towards what some call excessive political correctness. On YouTube, many have disliked the video and posting negative comments, yet it has still generated tens of millions of views and a huge level of media buzz.
The data available to date has revealed an interesting pattern – younger men mostly reacted positively to the ad, while the older generation were more likely to take offence. And it seems this was a calculated risk the company was willing to take in their efforts to win over the younger cohort.
“We knew this film might be polarizing. Conversations on these profound social issues can be difficult for all sides but we believe they are important and that, by sparking the discussion, we can play a part in creating meaningful and positive change,” said a P&G spokeswoman.
Of course, it’s not as simple as saying there is no such thing as bad publicity, but even with a significant amount of negative feedback, the buzz and debate around this campaign could make it well worthwhile for the brand, with some short-term pain giving way to long-term gain. The full effect will be revealed in time, but it doesn’t seem to have seriously harmed the company.
Another recent high-profile campaign that triggered a hugely polarizing effect was Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, which the company launched in September 2018 at the beginning of the NFL season. The ad featured Kaepernick’s voice, with the tagline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”, a reference to Kaepernick’s national anthem protest against police brutality earlier in the year which may have cost him his NFL career.
While many criticized the campaign as being anti-American, it strengthened the brand in the eyes of others, who admired its willingness to back this cause and deliver a bold message. Personal opinions aside, the campaign has been very much a success in monetary terms. Nike stock prices reached an all-time high in the aftermath of the ad, while it generated brand exposure on TV, radio, online, and on social worth many millions of dollars. The campaign received huge levels of media attention and social media mentions.
Again, this campaign was a calculated risk, turning some consumers off, but hitting the mark with others. “Nike took a strategic risk to alienate some customers in order to appeal to their core base of 18 to 29-year old males. It was a calculated move to become a more polarizing brand and it seems to have worked,” said John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll.
Again, it’s not surprising that such an edgy, cause-driven campaign would prove popular with this demographic, given their tendency to get behind socially active brands and campaigns.
One major cause marketing fail was Pepsi’s 2017 short film/ad featuring model Kendall Jenner at a protest rally. It’s one thing to go with controversial or risky material, but this was a blatant case of getting it very wrong.
Amid a storm of criticism, the ad was pulled by the company after just one day. In a statement, the company said: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”
The ad was widely criticized for appearing to trivialize demonstrations aimed at tackling social justice and being insensitive towards the Black Lives Matter movement. The video itself was heavily stylized and slickly produced, but the message was unclear, lacking impact and authenticity. The audience certainly was not impressed.
Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University in New York, said that the backlash was in part because Pepsi was a couple of years “late to the party” with its message about unity, making the ad seem exploitive.
The full Pepsi ad can be viewed here.
Ethical fashion is another recent concept to emerge in all of this. H&M and Zara, two of the world’s biggest fashion retailers in an industry worth $2.4tn, have launched sustainable and ethical clothing collections.
H&M’s Conscious collection is ethically sourced and uses recycled and organic materials to manufacture the clothing, and their recycling initiative offers customers vouchers for recycling old clothes. Meanwhile, Zara aims to stop sending all unused textiles to landfills by 2020, with a goal to develop an efficient life cycle for their clothes, meaning less textile landfill waste.
However, the motives, merits and ultimate effect of these initiatives are somewhat questionable. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, only behind the oil sector, with 20% of industrial water pollution stemming from textile development. Fast fashion, the mass-production of cheap clothes led by retailers like H&M and Zara, offers never-ending seasons of new clothes, amounting to over 80 billion garments being sold to customers annually.
While these ethical initiatives may be a positive move in the right direction for the fashion industry, it does ring a little hollow compared to the overall damaging effects of that industry on the environment.
One campaign to strike an excellent, positive note is Kenco’s Coffee Vs Gangs project, which aims to encourage young people to choose coffee farming over a life in gangs. Honduras is a nation rife with violence, drug-related crime and street gangs, with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Kenco, Honduras’ biggest coffee exporter, is investing back into local communities to sustain coffee farming culture with this campaign. The program trains young Hondurans to be independent coffee farmers and helps them to build their own businesses.
The Kenco TV ad for the Coffee Vs Gangs program:
The ad itself is impressive from a creative perspective, backed up by strong online content, with a powerful storytelling element. More importantly, however, there is real substance to the campaign as it’s making a difference to peoples’ lives in a very challenging environment, making it a very worthwhile cause.
Guinness is a company that has enjoyed positive publicity for many years – and indeed has come to be synonymous with Irish culture, tourism and a sense of fun and togetherness. However, as a brand, Guinness has also taken on some serious issues in its campaigns, such as the personal struggles of Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas as he came out as gay, and another campaign featuring ‘The Cowboys of Compton’, who’ve chosen a unique path in life amid LA’s gang culture.
As with the Kenco campaign, these are positive, inspirational messages in favor of worthy causes, really striking the right note.
From the examples above, it’s clear that brands can benefit hugely and create major buzz by backing important causes – and can even make a meaningful difference with their campaigns. However, this often comes with risk attached, as getting it wrong can be costly in terms of brand sentiment and even jeopardize the loyalty of existing customers.
Some major brands have clearly deemed this to be a risk worth taking, showing a willingness to cause controversy and ruffle some feathers in order to make a big impact with their campaigns. It’s a sign of the times, as consumers want brands to take a strong point of view, showing personality and commitment to their values. Going for the safe middle-ground is no longer a very effective strategy.
However, today’s audience is very savvy and discerning, meaning that authenticity in these campaigns is key. Basically, the audience can spot a fake, so cause marketing is much more effective and meaningful when it comes from a genuine place, with the company being truly ethical and willing to support a cause in a substantial way. That means putting real investment into it. Simply jumping on trends to win quick publicity might not work in the long run.
Ideally, companies should give their backing to causes that are aligned to their brand values, rather than just leveraging the most topical issues of the day. They can still be brave and controversial with their messaging and content. If this is executed cleverly and tastefully, it can prove very rewarding.