I appreciate it when a brand takes a stand, as long as it’s done right. When Patagonia replaced its usual homepage with the unapologetic message, “The President Stole Your Land,” it not only cried foul on President Trump’s order to cut funding for two national monuments, it also told consumers that Patagonia is as committed to protecting the great outdoors as you thought it was. That’s corporate social responsibility at its best—a call to action that’s directly in line with the core values you already associate with a brand. Sounds straightforward enough, right? But many companies still get it wrong. Here’s why opinionated brands sometimes stick a foot in their mouths.
Consumers Can Sniff Out the Fluff
All the carbon offsets on earth can’t turn an oil business into Greenpeace, and even a supremely charitable tobacco company comes off as a death dealer. Although as many as 78% of consumers will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, 110 percent can smell insincerity a mile away. Look what happened when Pepsi ran an ad featuring Kendall Jenner at a protest modeled after Black Lives Matter—the commercial was pulled within a day for being insensitive.
To many people, “corporate social responsibility” is an oxymoron. One survey, for instance, found that a mere seven percent of consumers believed what companies were claiming regarding climate change responsibility. Another concluded that the more money a company makes, the more suspicious people are about its perceived value to society. That’s why brands need to do right by consumers: If a company’s social responsibility agenda is nothing more than show, it’s time to chuck it in a landfill.
CSR Doesn’t Always Equate to Retail Choice
Our strategy firm once conducted a survey for Tom’s shoes on its “One for One” model, the project that delivers a free pair of shoes to a child in need after every retail purchase. It’s a worthy aim so the survey results surprised us. People love the idea of giving shoes to impoverished people in Central America or Africa. But it’s not the prime reason consumers buy the shoes. Simply put, people shop Toms shoes because they like Toms shoes. One for One is icing.
A meta-analysis of 162 CSR studies conducted between 1975 and 2015 found that advocating for causes improves a company’s reputation and triggers positive emotions, but also carries costs that can hurt financial performance. As the adage goes, you have to do well to do good, and that means delivering products, services and experiences customers want.
Brand Values Need to Match Brand Story
Again, look at Patagonia. The company was speaking directly to its consumer base when it told Trump to take a hike (hey, now there’s an idea). The messaging got a lot of press for its boldness but when you actually break it down, Patagonia was merely writing another page of its brand story. In fact, some people said it would have been irresponsible if Patagonia hadn’t spoken out at all. In the end, the results paid off: The day after the strongly worded post, Patagonia’s online sales jumped six times their usual.
Staying in the proper swim lanes is essential for brands wanting to advance social values. It makes sense for a drugstore chain like CVS to ban cigarette sales. That’s true to the CVS story. If the brand took a stand on deforestation or early childhood education or the plight of zombie hunters, it wouldn’t click as well with customers; and trust me, the zombie hunters will do fine on their own.