Last week, Pepsi found itself at the center of a controversy after releasing a commercial that went viral, which featured Kendall Jenner attempting to calm a protest by offering a soft drink to a police officer. While the execution of the ad was faulty, the impulse to create it was not. Thirty-three percent of consumers are now considering a brand’s do-good efforts when making purchasing decisions. Thanks to demand from millennials and the growth of B Corporations encouraging companies to see their value as more than just their ability to earn a profit, more companies are prioritizing social issues and highlighting them in their marketing, communications, and sales channels to give them a clear competitive advantage.
What can brands do to avoid the sort of backlash that Pepsi experienced? Here are three quick tips for brands to consider when taking a social stance and then promoting it.
Choose a Relevant Cause
Part of the reason Pepsi was in such hot water for its advertisement was because there’s no clear connection between soda and sensitive cultural issues such as police brutality. Connecting to a timely, but irrelevant, topic can be seen as an opportunistic marketing gimmick. While Coca-Cola got it right in the 1970s when they sought to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, Pepsi took it too far by trying to make a literal connection between drinking soda and ending urban violence that is a byproduct of social injustice and racism.
When choosing a cause to support, make sure that it’s a natural fit for your brand. For example, Honey Nut Cheerios recently embarked on a campaign to save wild honey bees, which are currently dying off in unprecedented numbers. The company offered 100 million wildflower seeds to consumers to help grow new habitat for bees. The brand did get in some trouble for including invasive species in the seed packs, but there was a clear connection between the brand and cause.
Pepsi is indeed committed to social and environmental causes through its 2025 Agenda. The company has also been rated as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for 10 consecutive years and it was chosen for Fortune Magazine’s Change the World 2016 list. By not connecting their advertisement to support the work they’re already doing, they come off as disingenuous.
Ingrain it in the Company’s DNA
Once you’ve chosen a cause that is close to your company’s heart, make it central to your business strategy and include it in your strategic plans, annual reports, and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Thanks to the internet, consumers can quickly verify if brands are as committed to causes as they claim to be.
Employees also need to advocate for the cause. After switching from conventional cotton to organic cotton, Patagonia experienced initial resistant from its manufacturers and sales teams due to new manufacturing complexities from the material and a higher cost. But, after visiting both conventional and organic cotton farms and witnessing the impacts of the chemicals used in conventional cotton cultivation (polluting water supplies, killing wildlife on the farm), the employees understood the importance of the switch and were committed to the new strategy.
When it comes to brands championing for causes, authenticity is key. Consumers are quick to spot insincerity and then efforts to generate positive public opinion result in the exact opposite.
After sustainability and the “green” movement began taking off, many brands began marketing the environmental benefits of their products and services. However, this led to dishonest marketing claims by some companies, which is now known as “greenwashing.” By always being authentic about the causes they support, companies gain the trust of consumers and are seen as the corporate leaders they are.
We applaud companies that use their position and power to promote worthwhile causes and combat social injustices. When they do it right, the effort is viewed for what it really is – business using its influence as a force for good. Who can’t get behind that?