Nike and Gillette are cashing in on the social justice movement, but not everyone is getting their results. Some companies are wishing they'd never heard of social justice branding after a public debacle.

So what makes some companies successful at social justice branding?

Everybody wants a better world, a more diverse workplace, and a chance to earn money while doing good for others. It's possible to do all of that. You can win customers by championing a cause. In fact, 90 percent of millennials say they would switch brand allegiance to support an issue they care about, according to research from the Haas School of Business at Berkley. But the wrong approach can create a public relations headache. The trick lies in building a genuine brand.  

By now we should know that good corporate intentions don't always translate into results. There's money in being socially responsible, but using language and imagery designed to play to people's sense of morality without backing up that rhetoric with sincerely motivated action can destroy trust in your brand.

If you want to help build a socially responsible brand, do these three things:

1. Pick one issue you genuinely care about and that logically aligns with your brand.

It's tempting to get distracted by the issues other entrepreneurs are championing, but losing focus won't help your brand or your cause. Pick one issue to tackle. If clean water is your issue, celebrate only that one cause's special day, week, or month. Just keep talking about your brand's commitment to your concern. Become recognized as an expert on your issue. Stick with it until your brand and that issue fuse in your customers' minds. 

You want to keep that cause logically connected to your brand's purpose, too. Nike does this by maintaining an athletic emphasis in their social causes. Gillette, primarily a men's company, stays on top of male-related issues. It makes sense. Small entrepreneurs can keep this type of focus as well.

Bryson Baker founded Everyman, a menswear, coffee, alcohol, and barber shop, and his company donates a portion of every sale to helping organizations that provide male mentors for boys. Everyman's for-profit purpose and its social mission make sense together. Patagonia, which sells outdoor wear, pledges to give 1 percent of its revenue to making positive environmental changes.

What's a social issue that logically connects with your brand's product or service? 

2. Consider issues that aren't saturated with corporate interest and that you can stand out for supporting.

Some issues are trendy and others aren't. The popular issues grab media attention, but they don't necessarily remain in the public consciousness. Hitching your brand to a cause just because it's trending at the moment can seem inauthentic. By supporting an issue that isn't clogged with attention, you can help an underrepresented cause and stand out as a genuinely engaged brand. 

Lots of hidden causes could benefit from your company's support. For all of its significance, the world water shortage gets very little attention in the private sector, for example. Criminal justice reform goes almost unnoticed, although it's a key social and economic issue. Mentoring is a proven intervention, but it doesn't enjoy a splashy media presence. And the struggles facing senior adults can get excluded in the rush to help kids. Find something meaningful to support-- even if it's not trending-- and then give it all you've got. 

3. Cause controversy intentionally. Don't get caught in it by accident.

You don't want to accidentally get caught up in cause-related controversy. Popular brands have shown what can happen when you release a thoughtless video or campaign that may be well-intentioned but comes off as tone deaf. That doesn't mean you have to avoid controversial issues, though. If you're passionate about something that causes heated debates, and you are willing to put your business out there for what you believe, go for it. But do it intentionally.

Elon Musk is the master of intentional controversy. He doesn't do it around social justice causes, but he uses controversy to focus attention on issues that affect Tesla. Since Musk speaks his mind, he's bound to attract plenty of attention. Each time he does, Tesla gets mentioned in the news again. Musk uses controversy to maintain his company's spot in the news cycle. He doesn't just wander into it by accident (usually).

If you want to use your entrepreneurial venture to change the world, do it. You can make a difference in other people's lives while building your brand. Just be smart with the issues you choose, and make sure you control the way your brand aligns with a cause. 

Published on: Jul 24, 2019
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