An elementary-school girl in a skirt and pony-tail stares up at the mighty Charging Bull – under the New York sun, in extreme cold and amidst heavy snowfall. She’s the Fearless Girl who’s been placed on Wall Street to “remind us that today’s working woman is here to stay”. State Street Global Advisors thought it best to embody women’s professional ambitions in a child’s form. An investment firm whose 28 member leadership team contains 5 women has earned free press of worth $7.4 million1. Despite that, an important question stands: Where should a marketer draw the line? Where must a brand draw the line?
Many including the artist behind Charging Bull – Arturo Di Modica – called it out as an advertising trick as opposed to a ‘symbol’. How far can faux empathy take your brand? To earn goodwill for the brand through cause marketing, your ‘why’ should be strong and far from facile. If you do want an example of the damage it could do, you need not look further than the Peeing Pug near Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl. Alex Gardega installed the Peeing Pug as a form of protest to the “corporate nonsense”2 of State Street Global Advisors. Yet, Gardega’s misogynistic reasoning does not discount for the fact that audiences still consider the Fearless Girl stunt to be faux concern.
Consider the above persona clusters and let’s assume that they fall under your ideal consumer and target group. What would your brand do to engage with these? How far would your brand go in making a social stand? Would you say your brand ethos align with any of the causes mentioned above? Would you say that your brand feels the societal obligation to do ‘good’ by them?
When Unilever-Kodaikanal’s mercury poisoning incident happened, it was a PR nightmare for the company. Unilever later admitted, although to only selling a quantity of 5.3 metric tonnes of glass containing 0.15% residual mercury to a scrap recycler near the factory. When it comes to corporate accountability and liability, no company, no matter how big can gamble consumer trust and still win.
When it comes to ‘clean’ cause marketing, Ariel did something clutter-breaking. When the brand came out with their carefully thought-out integrated campaign #ShareTheLoad, it was so clear of any negative emotions that the acceptance to change was easy for the audience. Focusing on gender equality in modern lives, they collaborated with daily print publications for an ‘Odd-Even laundry Calendar’ for Him and Her. Ariel even collaborated with the Dabbawalas of Mumbai to widely spread the message, targeting especially men in the offices. This campaign went a long way in ushering a time in the Indian media where it was acknowledged that brands have the capacity in them to take a stand, make a difference.
Similarly, Anouk came out strong with #BoldIsBeautiful, touching unconventional topics courageously. When Whisper launched its #TouchThePickle campaign, the shame and taboo around periods in the country took a step back. Following the footsteps of Whisper, Sofy came out with #imnotdown. Likewise, back in the day, Red Label had launched ‘Live-In’. This ad explored ‘tradition’, ‘love’ and live-in relationships. Havell’s hadn’t hesitated either. ‘Winds Of Change’ explored the then socio-political scenario in the country.
Moving on to a subject matter more sensitive, when Section 377 was announced, brands came out in solidarity to what they thought was an undebatable humanitarian right by the virtue of freedom of choice. Other brands which stood in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in the country are Myntra, MTV, Chumbak, Channel V, Hidesign, Kiehl’s and Lalit Hotels. Going beyond and going global, the Trump era saw something more than smart brand leadership: it showed brands taking a moral stand. Post Trump, Cadillac addressed the growing turmoil in the US. They addressed a ‘divided nation’ and asked for the opposite, something positive, more constructive.
At the same time, when Under Armour’s CEO Kevin Plank called Donald Trump “..a great asset to America..” in an interview on CNBC, the company faced heavy backlash. Disappointment resonated from sponsored athletes and the wider consumer base. When a company makes a statement as clear as that, it attaches itself with a bigger issue. A company standing up for a public figure who made racist and sexist remarks did not bode well with the brand ambassadors Steph Curry, Dwayne Johnson and Misty Copeland. In a somewhat strange scenario, Nordstorm faced boycott by Trump supporters after they dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. It even cost Nordstorm a 1% dip on NASDAQ, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Businesses which stood against the marriage equality law included Barilla and Chick-fil-A. The National Basketball Association (NBA) decided to move its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, NC after the anti-LGBTQ law ‘House Bill 2’. PayPal also cancelled plans for a global operations center that would’ve created 400 jobs in Charlotte.3 Similarly, Deutsche Bank cancelled expansion which could’ve created a combined payroll of more than $21 million.4
After the Trump immigration ban, Uber’s surge pricing and promotional tweet around the taxi strike at JFK earned for them a marketing disaster. #DeleteUber went viral and consumers switched to Lyft. At the same time, Lyft pledged to donate $1 Million to ACLU.
Likewise, Papa John’s, Applebee’s and Denny’s reputations have been impacted by executive remarks in opposition to the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare. The National Rifle Association has recently made public a list of more than 100 organizations and celebrities that support gun control, including Levi Strauss & Co., Hallmark Cards, and Ben & Jerry’s among several others.
Apart from Amazon, Ford and Microsoft’s support for gay marriage, another interesting case has to be of Starbucks. After the US Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, Starbucks by extension of Howard Schultz had its stand clear. This led the National Organization of Marriage to launch a “Dump Starbucks” petition with 56,000 signatures. Sales started dipping. Their most vocal statement was at the 2013 Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders, where shareholder Tom Strobhar (also the founder of Corporate Morality Action Center, which stands against same-sex marriage) questioned Schultz’s stand. “In the first full quarter after this boycott was announced, our sales and our earnings, shall we say politely, were a bit disappointing”, he stated. Schultz’s response was something like the following:
“Not every decision is an economic decision. Despite the fact that you recite statistics that are narrow in time, we did provide a 38% shareholder return over the last year. I don’t know how many things you invest in, but I would suspect not many things, companies, products, investments have returned 38% over the last 12 months. Having said that, it is not an economic decision to me. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds. If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”
Later in October, Starbucks added coverage of transgender reassignment surgery to the company’s health benefits. Starbucks also covers prescription drugs for hormone replacement therapy and mental health care. In 2014, it removed the financial cap on surgery benefits. In the same year, Starbucks flew the Pride flag atop its Seattle headquarter. Post the Trump immigration ban, Schultz and Starbucks laid out a series of plans which including hiring 10,000 refugees over five years and “building bridges, not walls, with Mexico” through continued investment in the region. Starbucks was, as a result, rated 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Corporate Equality Index. This became a national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to LGBT employees. Starbucks was also rated as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.”
According to the Global Empathy Index 2015, the Top 10 Companies increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings. A correlation as high as 80% was found between departments with higher empathy and those with high performers. This study found that empathy is strongly correlated with ethics. Example: Deutsche Bank dropped from 40th in 2015 to 110th in 2016 and Wells Fargo plummeted from 20th to 130th, given their recent controversies.
Let’s take a look at the facts and figures to understand Cause Marketing better. According to a Washington Post poll5, support for gay marriage among Americans has shot up to 58% in favor and 36% against, a turn-around in less than 10 years. A 2014 study from Global Strategy Group6 found that 72% of adults believe it’s important for businesses to align with and address societal issues. According to a Forbes/Qualtrics study, Americans are 8.1% more likely to buy from companies which share their viewpoints. 8.4% are less likely to buy from companies which don’t. Also, consumers aged 26-35 are 21% more likely to shop at a company whose socio-political stances mirror their own. Diving deeper, there are some unmissable insights from a ResearchGate Paper7:
- “Participants demonstrated a significantly greater purchase intent when exposed to corporate social advocacy messages that matched their own attitudes than when they were exposed to corporate social advocacy messages that did not match their own attitudes.”
- “Purchase intent is greater when organizational stances toward social-political issues are congruent with consumer’s own attitudes than when they are incongruent.”
- “When organizations or organizational leadership take stances on polarizing social-political issues, it seems rightly understood as a form of advocacy, often aimed at public policy change.”
- “Fact remains that engagement in CSA does impact financial objectives for the organization.”
Brand Humanization through Cause Marketing is smart. But bigger than that is the question: If your brand had the capacity to influence change, would it chose to? It’s for you to answer: As an individual, what would you subconsciously chose? Would you choose a brand that stands for a societal cause; will you be able to see through the smart opportunism of brands? What was the last time a brand video drove your affinity towards their products? Everyday, there are brands considering latching onto a cause to garner gains and produce profits. It’s easy for brands to launch a TVC on “woman empowerment” while at their factories in the developing world, the all-women employees are working in inhumane conditions, under stress, underpaid, overworked. It’s easy for companies to give out statements supporting Climate Change combat plans while at the same time, they’re dumping environmental hazards in the lake nearby. It’s as easy for brands to pretend they care as it is to actually make change possible. At the same time, it’s also easy for us, the consumers, the civilians, the citizens to demand more from those who have the power to make society a better place. Albeit minutely, change is possible. So, what do we
STUDY | AMAZON:
Banned the sale of Confederate flag merchandise after mass shooting at an African American church in South Carolina by an alleged white supremacist.
STUDY | LEGO:
Added more female minifigures from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. These include female deep sea explorers, engineers, mechanics and astronauts.
STUDY | CHIPOTLE:
First restaurant chain to completely disqualify the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), considering the health concerns for animals, farmers and environment.
STUDY | PFIZER:
As a commitment to combat climate change, Pfizer’s greenhouse gas emissions has been reduced by 20% 2000. It has also committed a 60% to 80% reduction by 2050. It’s also a signatory of UN’s Caring for Climate initiative.
STUDY | WELLS FARGO:
First U.S. bank which ran a national ad that included a same-sex couple, commenting on this “expression of commitment to the LGBT community at large”.