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The Right And Wrong Way To Associate Your Brand With A Cause

December 31, 2018

To the barricadesMany young people feel that voting in political elections is an exercise in futility. But those same young people, brand savvy as they are, can be quick to organize the boycott of a business if they think that by doing so they can bring about social change. It’s hard to say just how effective those tactics are. But, more than ever, people feel that brands have the power to improve society. Indeed, many believe that brands have more power even than governments in this regard. This is why brands have to keep in touch with their markets. This is why we say businesses have to share the values of their customers. Because, cash-carrying customers have feelings about the businesses they patronize. And, as a business owner, you want those feelings to be good ones. One way to share those values and elicit those good feelings is to champion a cause that is important to your market. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to curry favor in that way.

Regular Brandtalk readers know that Patagonia is probably the first modern brand to actively communicate its interest in a cause. Founder Yvon Chouinard is an avid outdoorsman who makes his living outfitting other outdoorsmen. For him to have a market, there has to be an outdoors to experience, to appreciate and to enjoy. So it is only natural that he should guide Patagonia to champion the cause of conservation. The brand argues for a vigilant human stewardship of planet Earth. For cause-driven marketing, Patagonia is still the model for most businesses to emulate. It selected a cause with which it had an authentic interest, where it had standing to raise its voice, and where it made sense to its market.

Ever since, businesses have struggled to adopt “cause-driven marketing”, sometimes unhelpfully referred to as “purpose-driven marketing”. In my opinion, conflating cause with purpose, in this context, muddies the waters when describing the purpose of a brand. The brand’s purpose is defined by its market. It describes what the market uses the brand for. It is not a social cause selected by marketers. This confusion, along with other factors, accounts for the many failed attempts at leveraging cause-driven marketing into a closer bond with customers and greater sales.

Luckily, we have two stellar examples that illustrate the right and wrong way to go about cause marketing. Both were ad campaigns that generated considerable controversy. In both cases, the discussion quickly shot past the advertising community into the broader culture. One campaign was, and is, enormously successful. The other campaign had to be quickly pulled in embarrassment. And they both have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement.

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best communicate its values to its market.

For those who don’t know, the Black Lives Matter movement evolved out of spontaneous protests that occurred in the wake of a string of innocent black men shot by white police. For a while there, in every part of the country, it seemed like there was another such tragedy with each succeeding month. The Black Lives Matter movement organized and has been bringing political pressure to bear on the issue ever since. They have been able to effect real change in police recruitment, training and tactics.

First, let’s look at Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is an immensely talented American Football player who seems to have been blacklisted by the National Football League. No one will give him a job while many other players of lesser talent have found teams. Why? A couple years ago Kaepernick showed his solidarity with the Black Lives Movement by taking a knee during the national anthem that proceeds each football game. The league and many fans found his actions to be offensive, saying he was disrespecting the flag, the country and even the military. Kaepernick and many of his fellow football players, coaches and supporters maintain he is simply exercising his right to free expression on a subject of national concern. And he felt the matter personally. After a while, the controversy died down a little. But Kaepernick is still out of a job.

Kaepernick02Then, in 2018, Nike launched a huge ad campaign that featured Kaepernick, the most controversial figure in all of American sports. The copy read, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” And this campaign got wide distribution. It was everywhere. It’s still running in many places.

Now, no matter which side of the controversy you find yourself supporting, it has to be admitted that this campaign is a huge commercial success. Here’s why.

Kaepernick and, more to the point, Nike have authentic connections to this issue. Heck, in this case Kaepernick is the issue. Nike also has a deep and obvious association with sports and with the black athletes who wear their apparel and promote their brand. Nike makes the uniforms for all 32 NFL teams! They risked something by running this campaign. They could have lost significant sponsorships and contracts. So both Nike and Kaepernick have standing to say something on the matter. And by saying it their market cheered.

The anti-Kaepernick side of the controversy tends to be older and whiter. The Kaepernick backers tend to be younger and more diverse. Can you guess which demographic buys more athletic shoes? No matter what your perspective, Nike sided with the future. They forged a stronger bond with the most important part of their market and they will reap the rewards from it. They probably are already.

pepsi-fbSadly, we now turn to the fiasco that was Pepsi’s attempt at cause-related marketing. I’m speaking, of course, of the notorious Kendall Jenner ad. I hurry to proclaim I’ve no wish to bash Kendall Jenner here. She seems harmless enough and I’m sure she would turn out to be a wonderful human being once you got to know her. But her management and the people around her should have known better.

Pepsi should have known better! In the ad, Ms. Jenner spies a street protest that looks very much like a typical Black Lives Matter march. She decides to join in. When she does, everyone seems happier. Could it be because she’s carrying that can of Pepsi? The ad ends with her walking up to a police line and giving the Pepsi to a cop. Whatever could be wrong with this picture?

Neither Pepsi nor Ms. Jenner have any connection at all to the issue of police shootings of unarmed black men. Neither has standing to voice credible public opinions on the matter. The protest Jenner joins turns into a party once she joins it, trivializing the whole issue just to sell some sugar water. Finally, Jenner (or the character she’s playing here) risks nothing by giving that drink to the cop. No one believes for a second that she is in danger, that the cop might actually shoot her. No one bought the idea that Pepsi or Jenner have any real connection, strong feelings or genuine support for the movement. The whole thing comes off as a cynical exploitation of very serious social concern and of the people who are trying to address that concern. The market recoiled and Pepsi killed the campaign immediately.

Moral of the story? When you want to support a cause to communicate your values to your market: be authentic, have standing and risk something.

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