Lauren Douglass, SVP Global Marketing at Channel Factory, asks, ‘Is socially conscious advertising worth it?’
Research by Accenture shows that two thirds of consumers prefer to buy from purpose-driven brands. While results like this have driven many brands to launch socially-conscious advertising initiatives, questions remain: does this approach translate into direct consumer behaviour and does that behaviour connect back to your business in an authentic way? Developing a strategy for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) should always come back to: why am I doing this? If it’s merely an exercise in virtue signalling, then the approach will likely not work.
Avoid a disconnect at all costs
Consumers are wise to thinly-veiled attempts to feign social respectability. Take Boohoo, for example. This fashion brand saw its market value fall by almost 50 per cent this summer after labour exploitation allegations surfaced as a result of a Sunday Times investigation.
On the other hand, some brands have done it right. Last year I had the chance to speak on a panel with Zehra Raza, Senior Product Manager at Hershey. Hershey strikes the right chord with consumers because their CSR initiatives are an authentic extension of their mission, and of their founders who started the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It was so near and dear to the founder’s heart, that he donated his fortune at death to the school, which is still in existence today.
Similarly, in a recent conversation I had with Ricardo Marques of AB InBev, he mentioned that their approach to cause marketing is driven by what they do to help support what they consider to be the most authentic causes. Whether it’s halting beer production in the aftermath of natural disasters, or a commitment to ecological sustainability by powering their factories with wind energy, when AB InBev decides to market their initiatives in commercials, it drives real emotion. And real authenticity that ties back to the brand.
Tone and context matter
It’s getting harder, though. A global pandemic, socio-economic and racial unrest, climate change and global elections have made tone more important and more sensitive than ever. Certain brands are beginning to imbue their marketing with corporate values, like McDonald’s doing their first global #BLM campaign this year. The fast-food chain’s campaign hit so close to home and was so impactful in the US, that the brand team was asked to launch the same campaign globally, highlighting names of Black citizens that were killed in their respective countries.
While difficult to navigate, authenticity and tone give brands much surer footing. A major component of getting the tone right is ensuring you are running against the right type of content. No matter how much effort you put into the perfect message, if it runs against the wrong content, the overall message is at best undermined and at worst ruined. Curating specific, local, and brand-suitable ad environments is critical if you want your socially-conscious message to land.
Platforms will be held to account
It’s not just the advertisers who are being held to higher standards, it’s the publishers and platforms where they advertise as well. You needn’t look further than the boycott of Facebook in recent weeks by a raft of major brands over its alleged toleration of hate speech. Twitter also lost some advertisers for similar reasons.
With perfect timing came IPG’s August publication of the first in an ongoing series of Media Responsibility Audits designed to foster “a greater good together” by establishing common standards of accountability for the major social platforms, according to Elijah Harris, Global Head of Social at Mediabrands’ agency Reprise. YouTube topped the rankings of IPG’s first report, evaluated against factors such as their policy enforcement initiatives, consistency, and their work in eradicating hate speech and misinformation.
Brands can convey togetherness at a time of crisis
With social distancing orders in place around the world due to the pandemic, and growing activism in many areas, brands cannot continue as if nothing is happening. At times like these, they can at least strive to convey a sense of togetherness and community.
Whether brand teams choose to tackle social issues related to civil rights, animal rights, the LGBTQ community, or the environment, the fact is that socially-conscious advertising has an impact on buying behaviour. In a 2018 Conscious Consumer Spending index, on a scale of 1-10, most consumers ranked themselves 7 or 8 in terms of their social consciousness when shopping.
Done well, taking such an approach can send a strong message to consumers and make a brand stand out. In these instances, the issue of brand suitability in turn becomes more acute, especially in the digital era, with many ads now bought programmatically. It is more important than ever that brands take steps to ensure their ads do not appear in the wrong context.
Be a good brand citizen: listen and be empathetic
The ongoing pandemic is causing many consumers to change their spending habits and expectations for brands to address the crises in their advertising. Brands that demonstrate a level of empathy or action will be regarded more favourably by consumers. But, equally, it’s important not to be perceived as taking advantage as a marketing ploy.
Amidst a backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are pushing for social, political, and economic change. Consistent messaging and tonality is absolutely key. Clever, engaging ads which avoid inauthenticity and exploitation, and which are placed in suitable context, can position brands as forward-thinking and empathetic.