Green-washing, pink-washing, rainbow-washing, woke-washing, and co-opting. It happens month after month, year after year: a company promotes a social cause by incorporating it into its marketing, advertising, and sometimes its product or service offerings. April brings out the plastic-free, reusable shopping bags and the “save the Earth” t-shirts. Pink ribbons adorn clothing, hats, bags, and much more in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
When a brand decides to support a social cause, it must be prepared for consumers to put the company under a microscope to determine the veracity and depth of the activism. Customers want to support companies standing for social causes they can get behind, but it is important for brands to be authentic in their messaging and support. In the age of social media, consumers can and will discover if a brand’s stance is genuine, or if it’s simply performative to cash in on a marketing trend. And the fallout can be harsh.
Recent stories highlighting several companies’ failed attempts to promote trendy social causes include McDonald’s 2018 failure to recognize female workers in a genuine fashion for International Women’s Day as seen in Business Insider. Another recent example includes Pink News’ look at Mark & Spencer’s LGBTQ+ campaign in 2019 highlighting a pride-themed sandwich. The last thing a brand wants is to find themselves in the subject line of one of these articles for a failed performative social responsibility campaign.
If your organization has decided it genuinely wants to join the fight for a cause, follow the guidelines below to avoid being considered disingenuous or accused of jumping on the bandwagon to try to increase your bottom line.
Everyone has to start somewhere. Admitting your brand has not taken a stand against certain issues in the past is not a failure. Instead, according to Forbes, it is the first step in creating authentic messages for your audience. It gives consumers the opportunity to see that you are in the fight together, according to Hasnain Raza, vice president of Market One Media and member of the Forbes Council. Eric Roza, chief executive officer and owner of CrossFit, openly discusses with Men’s Health how his newly acquired company has failed in terms of inclusion and diversity. These admissions have not hurt CrossFit’s public perception but rather opened the door for conversations and created paths towards improvement. The company created new committees and boards within the organization to tackle these past failures.
Some brands will post a message related to a social cause on social media, change their profile image or release special edition merchandise. But what are they actually doing behind the scenes? With a 24-hour news cycle and an unfettered access to information, audiences will quickly discover the actions your company is actually taking in relation to social causes. Take Nike, a company that is often lauded for its stance on social justice movements, for example. Despite its claims of making progress in the diversity and inclusion movement, Nike faced some backlash earlier this year for not readily supplying its data concerning diversity, hiring, retention and promotion. By not being transparent in your actions, your audience will wonder what you may be hiding. Is your organization donating proceeds to a non-profit, supporting legislation, or doing work in the community? If you do choose to stand behind a social movement, it is essential to share these acts with your consumers. It shows your brand is willing to walk the talk.
Phony campaigns can easily be spotted, and sales and donations can be traced. In June 2020, 28 million people posted a plain black square on Instagram with #BlackoutTuesday in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement. Five of these accounts were NFL teams, including the same ones that ostracized Colin Kaepernick for his social injustice protests in 2016. Sports Illustrated broke the story that Eric Reid, a former NFL safety, was quick to point out the hypocrisy of such performative activism. After such criticisms, the NFL announced that it failed in the past and will be donating $250 million over the next 10 years to combat systemic racism. While the act itself is reasonable, some of the authenticity was diminished because the NFL failed to be honest and transparent.
BigCommerce.com states companies should be prepared for the good reception as well as the bad. Some customers will not be happy your brand has taken up a social cause and will boycott your business. Neutral supporters may look at your brand with skepticism. And some will even accuse your business of promoting social causes just to boost your sales and bolster revenue. Counter skepticism with accurate information, current examples of actions, and future plans.
Companies big and small have the power to create positive impacts in the world if they so choose. However, in doing so it is important to be honest, transparent, genuine, and prepared when promoting social causes. Otherwise, they may find themselves highlighted on lists of top marketing fails.
With a team comprising digital marketing, social media, public relations, and communications experts, The Vox Agency is here to help you strategically create and execute genuine campaigns that demonstrate your support for social activism. Click here to get in touch.
By Richard Robinson