Wave goodbye to the silent CEO. Beginning in 2015 and exploding into this year, public expectation has required powerful brands to take a stance on controversies in conjunction with hot-button issues. While society stumbles through a fresh wave of social-political turmoil, issues like same-sex marriage, gun control and racial discrimination weigh heavily on consumers’ minds. As the link between the organization and its stakeholders, PR pros hold the power to successfully navigate the social justice landscape and maintain a positive corporate image. Without thoughtful, impactful and disruptive social interaction, corporations are doomed to occupy neutral ground and vanish into obscurity.
One solution could be cause marketing. Rather than praising internal social responsibility, cause marketing shifts a company’s focus outward. When executed appropriately, it steps beyond the brand’s familiar and comfortable social boundaries. It fearlessly tackles issues that may not directly involve the company, and it disrupts a complacent industry. Cause marketing also provides consumers with authenticity. A recent study by Edelman, a communications marketing firm, found that 70 percent of U.S. citizens believe that when brands engage, they are motivated exclusively by a desire to increase profits, rather than a commitment to people. Traditional charity and sustainability campaigns have lost their novelty. Brands can no longer expect a round of applause from consumers for cleaning up their supply chains or practicing fair trade.
When brands take a stand, they are fueling a potentially fatal fire. Starbucks hasn’t escaped without getting burned. Last year, it released the #RaceTogether campaign that failed less than a week after its debut. The initiative’s goal was to start a conversation about racial injustice in America by writing #RaceTogether on coffee cups. Baristas were encouraged to discuss the topic with customers; however, the Starbucks PR team quickly realized that racial controversy wasn’t an issue people wanted to talk about before they had their morning coffee. The campaign didn’t fail because customers don’t agree that racial injustice is an issue; it failed because they catalyzed the conversation in an inappropriate context and setting.
An effective social justice campaign breaks boundaries while respecting the limits of its customers, employees and stakeholders. If delivered successfully, it challenges the public to rally behind it and encourages them to fight for a more altruistic world. Below are five tips that PR pros should keep in mind while executing a cause marketing campaign.
First, take a position that aligns well with the company’s mission and core values. Stakeholders and employees could be disconcerted if the campaign advocates for an issue that is too radical. Kim Gordon, owner of National Marketing Foundation, writes about the importance of choosing the right affiliation in an Entrepreneur.com article, Cause Marketing Matters to Consumers. Company officials should not be startled by the social stance because the position should align with the organization’s values and principles. If the stance does not align with company values, the organization could be deemed hypocritical both internally and externally. Cause marketing campaigns that seek reform in their specific industries, continually reap favorable public endorsement. In 2013, Hotels.com released the Vacation Equality Project, a campaign that called for a guaranteed minimum amount of vacation time for American workers. The project earned a 75 percent approval rating from the public and clearly connected to the company’s mission.
Second, know which way the wind blows. Teresa Dankowski, content manager at Cision, cautions against choosing to back an inflammatory or divisive issue in her article 4 Can’t-Ignore Tips for Launching a Cause Marketing Campaign. Companies must assess where their audience stands on critical issues and be aware of opinion shifts. Some hot-button topics that receive corporate advocacy are inclined to draw more public endorsement than others. However, negative backlash is inevitable. Effective cause marketing campaigns weigh the pros and cons of an issue to determine if the cheers are worth the jeers.
Third, consider the millennials. A study conducted at Deloitte University estimates that millennials will become 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. Companies should, therefore, contemplate taking progressive and modern viewpoints because they will be more attractive to the emerging generation. Assistant Professor Melissa Dodd at University Central Florida, conducted research on millennials and found that 26 to 35-year-olds are 20 percent more likely to shop at companies whose social-political stance mirrors their own. An active cause marketing campaign shows the public that their company is the future, not the past.
Fourth, have a crisis communications plan in your pocket. KnowHowNonProfit.com discusses why a proactive approach to crisis management is a best practice for all types of marketing campaigns. Before the company embarks into the hazardous social-political environment, it is pertinent the organization have an escape route. The media plan must be both proactive and reactive to prepare for any potential negative fallout. Successful PR professionals use intuition and research to recognize which audiences may be disconcerted with the new social-political stance. Through scenario planning, they create talking points and external messages that will explain and defend the company’s position.
Fifth, practice what you preach. Forbes contributor Devin Thorpe discusses the importance of incorporating the company’s social responsibility standards into the day-to-day operations of the organization in his article Why CSR?. The internal environment of a company should be a reflection of its social-political claims. If an organization advocates for same-sex marriage, then they should offer benefits that cater to those relationships. If they advocate for a higher minimum wage, then the employees should be paid above average. A cause marketing campaign makes a commitment to the public. Brands that behave in a fashion that emulates their social-political stance will avoid hypocrisy and major embarrassment.
With the social-political arena beginning to fill with powerful corporations, Americans have come to expect brands to take a stand. The trend of cause marketing will continue to flourish in 2016. PR pros must maneuver the controversial climate and develop effective strategies. In the end, politically and socially disruptive brands with impactful cause marketing campaigns will be crowned the corporate justice champions.