How brands can become allies

Several conversations we’ve had with clients recently have been about whether and how companies and brands should get involved in social issues.

On-going activism for Black Lives Matter has brought renewed focus on what brands can and should do to help. At the same time, Kin + Carta is holding a series of LGBTQIA+Pride events for Pride 2020 this week bringing another aspect of social justice to the fore.

There is ample evidence that consumers want brands to be more active in social issues. So it is clear that brands can engage with social issues. But which issues? And how?

What: Pick a cause, any cause

The short answer to the question of which issues brands should engage with is: it’s up to you. But whichever issue you chose, you have to live up to the commitment.

Consumer insight can, in theory, tell you which issues are best aligned with your brand’s values, or most important for your target audience. From sustainability to discrimination, there is no shortage of topics on which we have heard people say they expect better behaviour from businesses. And it is good brand management to understand the things you are actively doing wrong and address them.

But when it comes to more proactively campaigning on behalf of social causes, the choice has to be a matter of personal conviction. Soft drinks and sports shoes don’t have moral agency. The people who work there do, though. If an issue matters to you and your colleagues that is reason enough.

And more pragmatically, that personal commitment is necessary –  because consistent long-term activism for a cause is hard work, and it has the potential to be contentious both internally and externally. Taking up that challenge is not something to be decided by focus group.

How: Action beats words

There is a difference between brands whose support for social issues is foundational and palpably authentic, and those whose involvement is superficial and half-hearted. That difference is action.

Grafting on a likely-looking purpose is easily seen-through if not matched with concrete changes to how a business operates. Mark Ritson’s recent piece on brands’ engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement is excoriating on the subject. The title alone – If Black Lives Matter to Brands, Where are your Black Board Members? – should give you a taste of Ritson’s point.

Part of the problem is that the businesses Ritson identifies are doing what they’re good at. Big brands are set up to deliver big public statements. Advertising, we call it. And it has some value beyond nebulously ‘raising awareness’ – it can help shape and inform public opinion. The risk is that it can also produce what social-psychologists call ‘moral licensing’; organisations that feel good about their public displays of virtue may be less inclined to act.

Avoiding that trap means thinking critically at all points in your business about the stakeholders and consumers you listen to; the people you work with and employ; and the design of the products and services you deliver.

Now what?

Like many organisations, Incite and Kin + Carta, the group to which Incite belongs, took part in Blackout Tuesday. The so-what has to come next. Our CEO has committed us to action and we’ll report back once we’ve achieved something concrete. The team leading the initiative has set themselves 60 days.

Read more

1 / Kin + Carta Connect’s Employee Experience Director Reeha Alder shares her experiences as the first in a programme of personal stories from our colleagues — Find out more

2 / For a wider view of brands’ responses to BLM, see this document put together by Lexie Pérez, Julian Cole, Stephanie Vitacca and Davis Ballard – a group of strategy professionals in the US and Australia — Find out more

3 / ‘Is race an issue in insights?’ in Research World — Find out more

4 / Kin + Carta Advise’s whitepaper on Ethical Business — Find out more

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