• In 1968, a few months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., two African American athletes raised gloved fists as they accepted medals in the Olympics ceremony in Mexico City. It was a gesture in support of human rights and black political power, and resulted in both track-and-field stars—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—being suspended from the U.S. team and widely castigated in the press. Although they would later have brief careers in professional football, no brands would touch them.

    Fast forward to 2016 when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest against racism and police brutality as the U.S. national anthem played before a football game. Although no NFL team would hire Kaepernick after the 2016 season, Nike booked him as a spokesperson in 2018. 

    “Believe in something,” Nike’s campaign said, featuring an image of his face. “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

    While there were many angry responses to the announcement, Nike estimated the campaign achieved $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion increase in brand value, and a 31% increase in sales.

    Between raising fists in 1968 and taking a knee in 2016, what changed for brands?

    A generational shift

    One obvious factor, SVP Valeria Piaggio of market research firm Kantar told RampUp, is that there’s been a generational shift among consumers. People 18 and under are now the “majority-minority.”

    Millennials and other post-Boomer generations care about social issues, she noted. “In many instances, we are talking about groups that are key for brand growth—Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and others.” She added that their population size, buying power, and cultural influence “can deliver business growth,” so connecting with them now requires that brands are “aware, awake, and take action on key issues.”

    Build consumer relationships reflecting shared values

    A 2019 Getty Images report found that 68% of consumers across all generations say it’s important “that the companies they buy from celebrate diversity of all kinds,” Getty Images’ Global Head of Creative Insights, Dr. Rebecca Swift, said. A third of the respondents said they have boycotted a brand in the last two years when it went against their values, and 34% have started purchasing from a brand that supports a cause because it aligns with their values.

    It’s these expectations that can help a brand build relationships with consumers reflective of personal values. “It’s not just the right thing to do,” Piaggio said. “It’s the smart thing.”

    A 2019 Advertising Research Foundation (ARF)/Kantar study detailed HP’s “All American Family Portrait,” which featured a four-minute online video that presented the diversity of the American family, garnering 11 million video impressions, 238,000 views, and significant media coverage. As the report noted, HP’s photo printer was on screen for only four seconds, but sales of the printer were “reignited.”

    While the biggest consumer spenders—notably, younger buyers—care about social issues, brands cannot succeed with just any cause.

    Stay true to your brand identity

    Piaggio noted that the cause needs to resonate in a way that amplifies the brand’s identity. When a brand’s social purpose resonates, she said, it “generates relevance and cultural currency, creates differentiation, builds brand equity, and brings the brand closer to the consumer.” 

    Of course, consumers can be much more involved these days in determining whether a cause-backed campaign resonates with a brand’s identity. With a few clicks, anyone can readily check online about a company’s history and demonstrated values, and quickly spread the word over social media and other channels if a brand’s hypocrisy is exposed. 

    For example, Audi ran a commercial two years ago during the Super Bowl that promoted pay parity for women, and viewers took to social media to point out that the company’s own leadership was predominantly male and white.

    “If it’s not connected to the brand purpose and values,” Piaggio shared, “if it’s not true to the company [leadership and employees], if it doesn’t align with what consumers expect from the brand, or if it’s not executed well, then it’s going to be seen as one more instance of ‘woke-washing.’“

    Establish differentiation through cause marketing

    The central business reason for cause-based campaigns is clear: your brand can rise above the noise and competition by having a highly motivated, enthusiastic base of customers who feel socially, politically, and emotionally aligned with your brand. This holds true, even for products that are relevant to significant percentages of the world. Think of the response to Gillette’s “The Best a Man Can Be” campaign about the changing nature of manhood. 

    “Publicly embracing the values and concerns of [customers] is good business,” VDX.tv VP Bryan Melmed said. “It provides a sustainable competitive advantage in an era where mental association is far more important than shelf space.”

    As a kind of “silver lining,” Engine’s Head of Strategy, Lindsey Allison, pointed out that current crises boost brand activism, spotlighting issues that audiences are concerned about. Twitter, for instance, now posts the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on its profile. Citibank, Netflix, and Reebok have similarly proclaimed their support.

    “A crisis demands and creates shifts literally overnight,” Allison said. “The big questions in advertising—‘Is it really our role to take a stance? Don’t people just want to tune out for a bit?’— have been effectively squashed. A crisis rips off the Band-Aid. Yes, it’s our role. It’s expected we will use our megaphones. And I don’t see it ever going back.”

    As in the ‘60s, there is a heightened polarization among consumers these days. But, unlike the ‘60s, that polarization can drive a brand’s momentum by creating a devoted—and reachable—customer base. That difference is a fairly precise measurement of why Colin Kaepernick became a Nike star, while Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn’t.

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