TriplePundit tracks the rising trend of corporate, executive and employee activism through our weekly Brands Taking Stands Newsletter and frequent coverage here on the site. And we’ve certainly found no shortage of material.
Over the past two years, outdoor labels like Patagonia and REI have sued the federal government to protect public lands. Retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart changed their policies on gun sales in the wake of a horrific school shooting. And Nike featured quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of its iconic “Just Do It” campaign, even as the National Football League effectively boycotted the former star after his public protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
Campaigns like these are resonating with consumers—particularly young people. But it takes more than a one-time stance to get noticed by the public, according to recent research from DoSomething Strategic, the social impact consulting arm of DoSomething.org, a nonprofit focused on youth engagement.
More than 65 percent of young consumers say their impression of a brand improves if the company is associated with a social cause, according to DoSomething’s survey. Yet only 12 percent of respondents had "top of mind" associations between brands and the social causes they support.
Put another way: Even though an increasing number of companies are taking public stands on social issues, it takes consistent engagement—often over several years—to get noticed by young people.
"It’s still so new," Meredith Ferguson, managing director of DoSomething Strategic, said of the Brands Taking Stands movement. "Brands that have been doing it for a while are the ones that are getting the most credit."
Dove, for example, has focused on self esteem and body confidence since 2004, "and that showed in the report," Ferguson said. More than 60 percent of those surveyed associated Dove with a social cause, with the majority naming body confidence as a top-of-mind issue for the company. Given DoSomething's findings about how young people respond to brands that take stands, it comes as no surprise that Dove's sales nearly doubled—from $2.5 billion to $4 billion—in the 10 years following the launch of its body positivity campaign.
Similarly, other brands that received top marks from young people for their social stance included Nike, with its support of Kaepernick and racial justice, and Patagonia—which has made land preservation and conservation a brand focus since its inception.
"That’s a piece of the puzzle that organizations really need to put together, which is to make sure you're saying it loud and proud, consistently," Ferguson told us at this week's Sustainable Brands conference in Detroit. "We talk a lot about the difference between educating your consumer and boasting. Consistently talking about what you stand for is very different from constantly bragging about how great you are because you stand for something. It’s a nuanced distinction that matters."
As one might expect, brands founded on purpose were also among the most recognized for their social stance—think: Bombas Socks and its mission to give back to homeless Americans with every purchase and Lush Beauty and its focus on sustainable packaging and clean ingredients. The most recognizable brands on the list are Rhianna’s beauty brand Fenty Beauty and her lingerie collection, Savage X Fenty, which launched around the causes of racial equity, body positivity and inclusion—and continue to be recognized for these issues today.
Although brands that are inherently purpose-driven may be more likely to attract attention, that's no reason for legacy companies to avoid jumping into the fray, Ferguson said.
"[Purpose-driven] brands will pop up more and more," she told us. "But I think it's easy for legacy companies to point to those brands and say, ‘Well, they get to start anew that way. It's harder for us.’ Sure, it's harder, but it’s not impossible. Don't use that as an excuse. Use it as inspiration."
Ferguson is well aware that it may be intimidating for legacy companies to go beyond marketing their products and services and take a stand on a social cause. But as we've covered here on 3p, staying silent is just as risky, as today's consumers increasingly seek companies with a purpose beyond profit.
"Not thinking about how, even as a legacy brand, you can leverage your platform for good is not only a cop-out, but it's also a foolish long-term business strategy, because you’re seen as complicit," Ferguson explained. "I'm not suggesting you have to go all-in on some hotly debated political issue, but find something that makes sense to your brand and your consumer set—or you are going to really miss out on a future base, and that is going to tank your business."
In other words: Even if you're not ready to get political, think about another way you can get involved. Maybe it's pledging to be more transparent about your ingredients and operations, taking a stand against single-use plastic, or working to address water scarcity or deforestation. Whatever you decide, be prepared to back it up with long-term action if you hope to attract engagement from consumers—particularly young people.
Case in point: A 2018 study from DoSomething Strategic indicates that although young people positively recognize brands that take stands, what they're really looking for is a way to get involved. "They want to engage with brands to participate in the social impact work that the brand is doing, because it makes them feel like they're part of something bigger when they feel like they're part of a brand community," Ferguson said.
"It's not just a one and done," she continued. "You'll start to see some serious engagement attrition if you don't create mechanisms that allow for that community to build and thrive."
While it's clear that brands taking stands is a movement, not a moment, research like this indicates that today's consumers are seeking authenticity—and a flashy ad campaign with little substance is unlikely to pass muster.
"When you can consistently talk about what you stand for and engage people in the mission or in the purpose, you're more likely to not only be credible among young consumers, but also get traction and sustain that message," Ferguson concluded. "Price, value and quality all still matter to young people. But all things being equal, I'm going to take the brand that aligns with my values, because at least that's doing something."
Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also the co-host of 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands LIVE! and the producer of 3p’s sponsored editorial series. She is based in Philadelphia and loves to travel, spend time outdoors and experiment with vegetarian recipes in the kitchen. Along with TriplePundit, her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard.