Adding social values to brand marketing can lead to big rewards – but only if it's done well

Luke Graham
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Brands are using social movements to set themselves apart from competitors (Source: Getty)

Obviously, most people start a business to make money. But being that blunt about your ambitions won’t attract customers, at least not in 2018. There are other ways to get your brand noticed, such as using snazzy product design or an eye-catching logo, but now the moral message behind a business plays a key role too.

Increasingly, brands both large and small are finding ways to put a purpose other than profit at the heart of their business. The extreme example of this is entrepreneurs starting social enterprises and benefit corporations – businesses driven not just to make money, but where creating a positive social or environmental impact is part of their legally defined goals.

While most businesses do not go down this route, there’s a growing trend of brands attempting to reflect social values, in reaction to changes in consumer behaviour. Customers want to feel part of a story, and like to think that their purchases make a difference to the wider world.

Read more: This year’s parade theme is “Pride matters”. Brands are realising this, too

“People no longer see themselves or want to be treated as consumers,” says Jonathan Trimble, chief executive of creative agency 18 Feet & Rising.

“They want to buy stuff, sure. But more importantly, they want to buy into stuff. Those companies that allow audiences to take part in their missions will have greater defences against being copied or commoditised.”

There are different ways brands can show to consumers how they support a social movement. Some, like the smoothie maker Innocent, donate a share of their profits to charitable causes, such as food banks and emergency hunger relief efforts. Others launch their own initiatives aimed at changing the world – for instance, cosmetic brand Dove has a project to boost the self-esteem of young people.

However, this approach is not without its pitfalls. If a brand adopts a social movement it doesn’t genuinely believe in, consumers will see through it and call it out.

“If you are just piggybacking on a social movement, you are going to get caught out, because it’s obviously something that you don’t really care about,” warns Martyn Garrod, creative director at design studio Carter Wong.

Cosmetics retailer Lush is an interesting case study of the benefits and drawbacks of using a social movement.

It’s an established brand that is closely associated with the social values it has built into its business model, specifically a heavy focus on environmental and animal rights issues.

“Lush is very eco-friendly: it advertises that its products are not tested on animals, and uses recycled packaging and reduces the amount of packaging it uses. That fits very well for that brand,” Garrod adds.

But Lush provoked controversy earlier this year with its “Spy Cops” campaign, intended to raise awareness about the practice of undercovering policing. Some consumers, politicians and advocacy groups were upset with the message, interpreting it as anti-police. Lush later released a statement clarifying its support for the police, but the damage was done. The issue was simply too nuanced to be conveyed in a regular marketing campaign, and also not obviously relevant to Lush’s products.

The sweets brand Skittles is another example of how a message can be skewed, misinterpreted, or outright rejected by consumers. Last year, the brand – which normally uses a rainbow to advertise its product – began selling a bag of all-white sweets to mark the LGBTQ Pride festival, with the slogan “during Pride, only one rainbow matters. So, we’ve given up ours to show our support.”

After the launch, the candy-maker faced an online backlash, as the product was accused of ignoring racial diversity within the LGBTQ community. It was also not necessarily clear to consumers what removing the colour from products had to do with equality.

And even if you do manage to design a faithful campaign that’s relevant to your product, not all consumers will care about the social movement your brand supports.

“Brands must be aware that their own passion for a particular social movement is not always the same as what the consumer cares about,” warns Sarah Turner, managing director at Carter Wong.

“They have to believe in your story, but they also have to want to buy your product. It’s a double-edged sword really. It does help attract people who are socially conscious and aware, but you need a two-pronged approach to attract other consumers.”

It’s also important to note that tagging a social value onto your brand won’t help if what you sell doesn't appeal to consumers.

“People buy product-first. They buy if it's good, and the social movement is an added reason to buy it,” says Garrod.

That said, when done well, there are strong benefits to tapping into a social movement: it can help you boost customer loyalty, attract workers who agree with your message, and set your offering apart from competitors by generating brand awareness.

“Everybody wants to shop better and buy better, and feel they’re making a difference. It’s a consumer-led world and many people are moving towards a better way to live their life. The ones that do it really successfully do very well,” adds Turner.

The important thing, as with everything in the modern world of marketing, is to be authentic. If you are honest and genuinely support a cause, then adding those values into your brand can be a powerful force for good.

Read more: Why brands need to make their messaging more authentic

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