Maintaining brand awareness with socially conscious, relevant marketing campaigns can be a bit like walking a tightrope for some companies.
There’s very little room for error. The difference between maintaining perfect balance and falling off can depend on something as simple and unpredictable as which way the wind happens to blow that day.
A positively-received campaign, especially one that focuses on a sensitive issue, can be difficult to craft even with the best of intentions.
And when a company fails, it’s public, it’s embarrassing and it can be hard to recover from the Twitter-wide mockery and outrage that often ensues.
So, why are businesses engaging in these risky campaigns in the first place? By drawing lines in the sand on heated political issues they can wind up alienating some of their customers or even open their company up to scrutiny.
It turns out they’re just trying to give consumers what we want.
An Ipsos poll published in October found 54 per cent of Canadians surveyed felt corporations should take a public stance on social issues like racism and sexism. The results also showed that 20 per cent disagreed with the idea, while 26 per cent felt neutrally or didn’t know.
In today’s heated political climate, consumers and activists alike are pushing for corporations to take action on key social issues.
A cursory glance across job postings in the business sector will yield lots of positions in Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR, broadly, is a self-regulatory initiative that reaches across many industries. It looks at ways a company can contribute to certain social causes and simultaneously boost their brand’s image.
Impakt, a consulting agency based in Toronto, has been working with companies to put them in contact with non-profit organizations. Impakt is designed to help companies both contribute to and benefit from solving social problems.
CEO Paul Klein says he founded the company in 2001 because, “I felt if we could bring business thinking to social change that would just be better for everybody.”
“I feel like it’s become clear that from the point of view of consumers, employees and investors actually and the government, that corporations have a role … people expect them to be making a meaningful contribution to social change,” he says.
But not all campaigns are created equal, or with the same amount of consideration of the issue at hand. Several branding campaigns have missed the mark and faced backlash across social media for capitalizing on serious problems.
“Nike is a good example where people come out and say, ‘You know that’s not really quite enough’ … at a brand level, it’s been quite successful for them, but they’ve also got a lot of pushback from people who actually think, ‘You know what this is a very important issue and there’s a lot more to it than just having someone’s picture and a video,’” Klein says.
Shortly after Nike signed former NFL player Colin Kaepernick as the new face of their “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign in September, a hashtag erupted from the pits of Twitter. The #boycottNike hashtag began making its rounds through social media.
Kaepernick had first made headlines for kneeling during the American national anthem at his games, in protest of racial inequality and police brutality. Some Americans believed this was unpatriotic.
After Nike announced its campaign, an Alabama preacher even reportedly denounced the brand while cutting up a headband and swearing he wouldn’t be purchasing anything Nike ever again.
Nike’s share values decreased slightly. However, despite the boycott, it was widely reported at the time that their online sales actually increased by 31 per cent.
In fact, according to Ace Metrix, a technology company that specializes in measuring the impact of video advertising, 56 per cent of viewers said they were more likely to purchase a Nike product after seeing the advertisement.
But on the other end of the spectrum, another hashtag was circulating. A small group of people were accusing the company of #wokewashing, or monetizing social issues without giving anything back.
This group pointed out that Nike has upheld their eight-year contract with the NFL – the organization responsible for basically blacklisting Kaepernick from playing in the league because of his protest.
Still, the campaign has largely been both a financial and branding success for the company. According to one marketing professor at the Ivey Business School of Western University, flashbangs of internet outcry like these might not be as detrimental to a company as first imagined.
Professor June Cotte says social media has made ads so targeted that they may not be as polarizing as they might initially seem.
“The risk of a huge backlash is probably minimized because the people that would likely be the most offended are unlikely to see your ads,” Cotte says.
“But, having said that, when ads really miss the mark, the other aspect of social media allows it to be amplified very quickly,” she says.
Cotte says that in the past, when most people consumed advertisements in front of televisions, if they didn’t like an advertisement they could complain directly to the broadcaster. Then the ad could get quietly pulled.
“Now, when companies do an ad that raises the ire of a particular group, it’s very quickly shared and goes viral and that lasts a lot longer. Now, does it lead to boycotting behaviour and reduce sales? Those tend to be, actually, quite temporary. The research lately has shown that consumers get over those things quicker than you might imagine,” she says.
Even if the boycotting might not be long-lasting, a company’s image can still become tainted when a poorly thought-out marketing tactic blows up on them.
Klein says he can think of several instances where campaigns have completely backfired on companies.
“For me personally, one of the ones that seemed sort of stupid was the Gerber Baby one where they had this baby with I think Down Syndrome,” Klein says.
He says it seemed the point they were going for was to try to create awareness of and normalize Down Syndrome, “but it mostly seemed just very … derivative. It was pretty empty and possibly just exploiting.”
That campaign also faced backlash due to the fact that Gerber Life, Gerber Baby’s sister company, had allegedly been denying life insurance coverage to babies with Down Syndrome, citing their lower life expectancies as a rationale.
Once, corporations could present themselves as contributing in meaningful ways to human rights, environmentalism, and the public would have to take them at their word. But now, in the age of the internet and social media, it’s a lot easier for consumers to scrutinize companies and evaluate their actual contributions.
Kasha Huk, Country Manager with B Lab Canada, says, “We’re seeing this pushback on companies to actually live up to the way that they’re speaking about their impact.”
B Lab helps companies to pay attention to the way they manage diversity, equity, sustainability and inclusivity. When these companies meet certain criteria, they become eligible as certified B Corporations. According to B Lab’s website, this lets consumers know that the companies meet “the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
“Just having a certification means that you’re actually credible and authentic in the impact statements that you’re making. Beyond that it’s a way to communicate your values to the outside world, so whether that’s your investors of the company, your consumers, your clients, your workforce and keeping your employees engaged — it’s an easy way to tell that story about what you really stand for,” Huk says.
According to the website, there are approximately 230 companies who are verified B Corporations in Canada.
For some companies, it’s a way to verify their claims of social and environmental awareness in a market where every corporation claims to be the friendliest and the greenest, with few policies in place to make them specify what that means.
Huk says one of the key differences between companies that are trying to achieve actual social change versus those that are using it as a branding tactic is the long-term commitment.
“When it is something that’s more of a marketing play, or more of a PR play, you can just see that … potentially the company hasn’t researched very well what they’re doing.”
Huk mentions Danone, a yogurt company and certified B Corporation, as an example of a business that used a successful marketing campaign to affect real change in line with their brand.
Danone Canada Inc. has been partnered with the Breakfast Club Canada since 1996, working to bring breakfast to economically disadvantaged students.
“They’re thinking about, ‘How can we actually use our product to increase child nutrition? So, we’re already making these food products that people are eating every day, we could work with a breakfast charity to provide these products to kids in schools who don’t necessarily have access to food,’” Huk says.
On the other hand, some efforts are harder to successfully portray. Sustainability initiatives particularly can be difficult; corporations have been making unfounded claims for years about their environmental initiatives.
It’s been an issue since at least 1986 when the term ‘greenwash’ — using deceptive tactics to portray a company as being more environmentally friendly than it is — was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld.
Derek May is a project manager at Pollution Probe, a charitable Canadian organization that, among other things, helps businesses and industries solve environmental issues within their day-to-day operations.
“We have been approached by companies in the past who kind of come to us with almost an ultimatum like, ‘We’re looking for someone to write a report that says this or that, will you do it?’” May says. “We always turn those people away without exception.”
“Companies that are really trying to make a difference… they’ll listen to us. They spend a lot of time asking us questions and listening to us and engaging in real sincere dialogue,” he says.
May points to automakers as an example of an industry making strides towards becoming more environmentally friendly.
But he also notes that, “You have to take everything from the private sector with a grain of salt because obviously no company is going to do anything that isn’t in its interest either in the short, medium or long-term.”
“I think a lot of companies are kind of reducing emissions now to save themselves money in the future, but also to make themselves more sustainable,” he says.
And you might not even hear about all the companies that are trying to make themselves more eco-friendly.
“There are many companies that have actually done things to, for example, green up their supply chain or have more ethical suppliers or any number of things that would fall under CSR initiatives,” Cotte says, “but they may not actually be trumpeting much in the press.”
“The reason for that is quite simple, I think … if companies push this too hard you can be attacked for what’s called greenwashing or making claims that you’re better than you are.”
Cotte says oil companies, like Shell have made leaps and bounds in environmental initiatives.
“But at its heart, it’s an extraction company,” she says. “So the very industry makes it difficult for the companies in that industry that are actually doing really great initiatives to really celebrate them quite publicly.”
There is so much duality and risk in corporate social responsibility initiatives. Companies are sometimes damned if they do and damned if they don’t if they involve themselves in the many issues plaguing society today.
But, Klein says, “I think it’s become something that’s almost, you know conspicuous by its absence if corporations aren’t doing that.”
Klein says there are opportunities to turn social responsibility into a competitive advantage. There are also drawbacks to not getting involved.
“The risks of not doing it … people don’t want to work for you, or they don’t want to buy your products or the government doesn’t support what you’re doing.”