In the Era of Cause Marketing, Here’s What Not to Do

To stay relevant with today’s younger generations of tech-savvy, socially conscious consumers, companies have had to change their marketing game and learn to not only tell a story but also stand for something they believe in — while being unequivocally authentic.

They must also be more introspective about where their passion points lie, more vocal about what causes they can align with, and more aware of who can help tell their story.

But brands that choose to venture into political or social debates are taking a risk that their actions could alienate — or even anger — consumers.

Ayako Homma, fashion and luxury consultant at Euromonitor International, recalled that New Balance and Under Armour faced backlash in 2017, when their executives were perceived to show support of President Donald Trump.

And last year, after Nike released its latest “Just Do It” ad with polarizing sports figure Colin Kaepernick, some Swoosh wearers vented on social media and even burned their sneakers.

Yet taking a public stance doesn’t always elicit a negative response. “It can create opportunities and increase brand loyalty, if the position aligns with the brand’s core values,” said Homma.

She added that oftentimes brands approach controversial topics as a way to connect with consumers on a personal and emotional level, build their reputations and generate buzz on social media. “They also believe that maximizing visibility could help to generate a higher market share.”

Homma cited Allbirds and Veja as two brands that successfully implemented ethical messages as part of their core business strategies. “Once small niche brands, they communicated the positive impact they’re having on communities around the world through their efforts and have attracted interest from a large base of consumers as a result,” she said.

Allbirds Tree Sneakers
Allbirds’ “Tree” sneakers are made from sustainable eucalyptus fibers.
CREDIT: Jason Henry

However, there are many ways that brands can miss the mark with their marketing. Below, experts share a few major mistakes to avoid.

1. Don’t Stay on the Sidelines

Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor of sports at The NPD Group Inc., argued that silence is no longer an option today. “It’s more risky not to do something at this point,” he said.

But Powell cautioned that taking a stand on an issue can’t simply be a marketing ploy.

“A brand has to reflect the values it’s talking about — not just talking the talk, but walking the walk as well,” he said. “They have to do that well to not hurt their brand in any way and stay relevant with consumers. Brands have no choice but to take a stand on something today.”

2. Don’t Ignore the Need for Cultural Awareness

Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing, said that what can put brands at great risk is when they don’t display the necessary global or cultural sensitivity. “If companies lack awareness or understanding about a cultural environment, that’s one way they can really screw up,” she said.

The luxury fashion market has produced a number of such instances in the past few months, including Gucci’s balaclava sweater that resembled black face, Dolce & Gabbana’s racially charged videos that offended Chinese consumers and Burberry’s hoodie with a noose tie that was accused of glorifying suicide.

In response to the public outcry, Gucci’s leadership, for one, responded by implementing plans to “embed cultural diversity and leadership in the company.” And it aimed to redeem itself at its cruise ’20 runway show, which featured a jacket with the women’s rights slogan: “My body, my choice.”

Shoppers looking through the windows of a Gucci store.Gucci store, Copenhagen, Denmark - 14 Sep 2018
Gucci worked with leaders of the African American community, including designer Dapper Dan, to address its cultural shortcomings.
CREDIT: Francis Joseph Dean/Shutterstock

3. Don’t Forget What Your Audience Wants

As millennials increase their buying and spending power and Generation Z comes of age as consumers, they have different demands than other generations before them. “They require that brands show up with a set of values and beliefs. In some cases, they don’t care what they are, just as long as they have them and can show that,” said Gabor.

But that’s not to say brands should rest on their laurels after choosing an “appropriate” platform. They need to remain relevant to their target consumers. “Brands put themselves at risk if they’re just singing one note all the time and not being aware of how to shape-shift while maintaining their brand integrity,” Gabor added.

She further noted that marketing messages may change, and channels, tactics and buying experiences will continue to evolve, but a brand has to remain true to itself. “Customers will lose trust in any organization that’s not delivering on the brand promise,” Gabor said.

4. Don’t Get Stuck in the Past

Ray Graj, partner at Graj + Gustavsen, said the worst thing a company can do is to resist its own evolution. He explained that established brands can have a hard time with cause marketing because they’ve been doing business one way for so long and all of a sudden they have to be “passionately driven by some higher purpose,” he said.

That’s one reason why he sees many of the digital-first businesses and brands prospering. “They’re integrating into their proposition all the things that are relevant to their audience, such as pain-free experiences and product that’s delivering value and a message that’s in line with their audience’s values.”

Gabor, for instance, pointed to Rothy’s as a brand that’s doing things right. “They’re in touch with their target audience and really understand what they want.” By attaching themselves to the idea of sustainability and concern for the environment, they’ve “taken off like wildfire on social media with marketing,” she observed.

rothy's san francisco store
Rothy’s shoes, made from recycled plastic, are such a hit, the company plans to open five brick-and-mortar stores this fall.
CREDIT: Courtesy of company

5. Don’t Leave Your Partners Unprepared

Used in the right way, influencers can be a very powerful tool, said Roman Rabinovich, VP of business development at Eventige Media Group. “Brands are banking on the fact that they’re connecting emotionally with the target demographic through shared values,” he said.

But with high reward comes high risk. “There’s always the chance of a misfire or backfire when someone else is promoting your brand,” said Rabinovich.

While companies can’t completely predict the actions of outside partners, Gabor said these unions can be effective if done right. “Ultimately you can’t control human behavior, but you certainly can influence it — and more important, you can educate, prep and prepare folks with everything they need to be able to assist you in sharing your message with the rest of the world,” she said.

Below, find out more about why Allbirds is winning:

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