Supporting a Cause Is No Longer a Choice for Brands

But it must be an authentic effort

A platform and audience can be used for social good and sometimes can effect real change. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Kinjil Mathur

We’ve reached a point where companies can no longer—and should no longer—stay silent about broad-reaching social issues. Employees are speaking up to hold their employers accountable to their own missions, and customers are loyal to brands they believe align with their personal values, whether that’s about sustainable practices or inclusivity. It’s an exciting time for consumers and employees and is also the right time for brands to be thoughtful.

Supporting causes as a brand is important. You have a platform and audience that can be used for social good and are sometimes afforded a budget that can effect real change. But even with the best of intentions, supporting a social cause can cost brand equity if consumers sniff out inauthenticity.

However, there are steps companies can take to ensure supporting a social cause, particularly when it’s tied to a marketing campaign or business impact, does not go awry.

Pick your cause(s)

Some companies choose a single cause to support, which they focus all of their efforts and budget on. While that may seem like a strategic approach, it’s also unrealistic. Unless you are an extremely niche brand, there will be multiple worthy causes that relate to your brand or matter to your employees. Many companies fear that supporting multiple causes can come across as ingenuine, but that’s not innately so.

Even with the best of intentions, supporting a social cause can cost brand equity if consumers sniff out inauthenticity.

Spotify is a great example of supporting multiple causes done right. For two years, the company has celebrated black history year-round with its “Black History Is Happening Now” initiative, in addition to activations around Pride and partnerships empowering more women in leadership. With each cause, there is a natural tie-in to the Spotify platform, which is made up of diverse artists and listeners, as well as its company values, which uphold sincerity and collaboration. If there’s alignment with a company’s ethos and commitment to making an impact, authenticity will always come across.

Rally employee engagement and internal alignment

If you don’t have internal buy-in, taking a stance on a social issue is never going to appear authentic because it isn’t. There should be clear internal alignment. And more than that, employees should be able to participate, whether it’s as simple as sharing an activation on social media or as involved as volunteering for the supported cause.

Reformation, a clothing company known for its commitment to sustainability, helps its employees partake in outside practices that support its mission. It provides one paid day a month when employees can volunteer, offer company-wide service days and highlight community volunteer opportunities. In the last year, they organized a beach cleanup and wetland restoration project. In short, there is no question about what Reformation stands for, and getting employees involved in the company mission gives them a direct hand in the impact being made as well as pride in their company.

Understand what you’re trying to accomplish

There are many ways to define having an impact. While some are more powerful than others, you shouldn’t discount the ability your brand has to raise awareness, which can be extremely meaningful for a cause. It’s also important to remember that having a social impact is not mutually exclusive with having a positive business impact. You can absolutely marry the two when done well.

For Women’s History Month, Grubhub launched the RestaurantHER initiative to support female-led restaurants. In addition to matching donations, Grubhub highlighted stories from female chefs across social media and built an interactive map of women-led restaurants nationwide. So while the company was making positive change and raising awareness, the business also benefited from sales driven by the initiative and increased brand affinity.

Creating positive social change doesn’t always have to be rooted in a donation, either. Using your marketing dollars to raise awareness can be equally effective. What creates authenticity is recognizing what you want to achieve as a brand and owning that. Brands can find a balance between having both a positive business and social impact while also remaining genuine to their company’s values and the causes they support.

It’s worth noting that these tips aren’t foolproof. If you keep them in mind as you approach supporting a cause, you have a good chance of succeeding. As with everything important, there’s always the chance you could fail, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If anything, the chance of failure underscores the fact that brands should be trying because these issues warrant the effort. It’s going to require a test-and-learn strategy. There will be some big wins and some attempts that don’t land even with the best of intentions, but brands can’t stay silent—and we shouldn’t be afraid to try and effect change. Let’s be the change.

This story first appeared in the October 15, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kinjil Kinjil Mathur is CMO at Squarespace.