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How do I use social issues to demonstrate purpose and disrupt my category without damaging my brand?

It’s no secret that brands face high expectations while living under more scrutiny than ever before. Each day brings news of yet another product or campaign release that people find insensitive or outright offensive.

Meanwhile, research repeatedly shows that people today demand brands have purpose. Regardless of age, they want to purchase products or services from organizations that reflect their values and beliefs. For many, the historic differentiators of quality, price or features are less important in driving purchase decisions.  In today’s world, “purpose” intertwined with social action takes precedence.

Accenture’s most recent Global Consumer Pulse Research found that nearly 2/3 of consumers expect companies to “take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices.” Simply taking a stand isn’t enough, however. It has to be the right stand and handled in the right way as nearly half of U.S. consumers will complain when they are disappointed by a brand’s words or actions, according to the same study. And, one in five will walk away … forever.

As Simon Sinek says, “people do business with those who believe what they believe.”

So how do brands navigate the increasingly sensitive landscape without stepping on the land mines?

It begins with reframing your thinking. Purpose is not a marketing gimmick. Purpose is the essence that makes something unique. It is the reason something exists. Purpose-led organizations, such as Unilever or Patagonia, stand for and believe in something that is meaningful, relevant and bigger than the products they sell. It is ingrained in every aspect of their cultures. 

Understanding this, several core principles will help you evaluate if, when and which social issues to champion as part of your brand’s purpose.

Be authentic. Brand purpose can’t be manufactured simply to drive a marketing strategy. However, it can be leveraged in marketing – provided it is the brand; that it’s why the brand exists; and that the organization is relentlessly consistent about living the purpose in every aspect of its business. When it’s authentic and has a legitimate connection to the brand, it’s powerful. When it’s not, people see through it and the impact can be disastrous. Always stay true to the brand DNA.

Know thyself. To make wise decisions, you genuinely have to know who your brand is and what it stands for. It also helps to know what matters to the people who matter to you. Then layer in what you want to achieve by aligning your brand with a social issue. Armed with this understanding, you can establish your brand’s boundaries to ensure you stay true to its purpose and meet your objectives when evaluating the risks and rewards of aligning with social issues.

Take the high road. People often view ideas through territorial lenses of Us versus Them, which can make social issues particularly challenging. Yet, it’s possible to be provocative without being polarizing. Standing for something doesn’t mean brands have to diminish something or someone else. If you genuinely want to make a difference in society and your business, your message must connect with the people you want to reach without alienating others, including those you want to keep. To avoid being or appearing tone deaf, carefully vet your ideas with a diverse group. Seek out opposing viewpoints, different experiences or varied backgrounds to help illuminate potential pitfalls. Running your idea through a brand gauntlet will help ensure you stand out – without losing the purpose for which you stand.

It’s not uncommon for organizations to feel pressure to wade into the center of public debates – or view doing so as a way to differentiate, gain traction with new audiences and grow. However, history is littered with examples of failed brand campaigns that tried to force connections with public debate or pop culture. Some brands bounce back; others never do.

For better or worse, people have more ways to speak their minds and reach broad audiences than ever before. And, we aren’t shy about doing so. No brand can please everyone all of the time. Nor should you expect to do so. Social issues can drive people away or draw them closer.

To be one of the success stories, know your purpose, stand for your principles, connect with your customers’ beliefs, and align with organizations or ideas that make sense with your brand. Doing so will make your brand a disruptor in its own unique way, build a loyal and engaged following, and support the greater good along the way.

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Susan Puflea

Senior Vice President, Managing Director – Brand Strategy

Susan Puflea leads Falls’ Brand Strategy practice. She is a purveyor of insights and ideas that enhance value. A passionate brand fanatic, Susan helps organizations uncover and tell their unique and compelling stories to connect, engage and inspire.