25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

How brand communicators should address societal marketing messages

Ad Age 09 Aug 2019 02:00

Brand activism makes for great conversation and, if executed properly, can lead to great PR. For evidence, you needn’t look any further than Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advertising campaign that debuted late last year.  

While PR professionals are well aware of the power of meaningful activism on a brand level, the 2019 Global Communications Report from USC’s Annenberg Center for Public Relations highlighted that the majority of CEOs in the U.S. feel their No. 1 communication goal is to sell products and services, while others set standing out among the competition as their top communication goal.

Corporate communications professionals flip-flopped in their responses. More comms professionals were focused on differentiating the brand as opposed to selling, but neither the CEOs nor the PR pros in this study expressed concern about addressing societal issues -- and neither group wanted to make this a priority when setting corporation communications goals.

When does taking on societal issues impact a brand? The answer is anytime. There are many ways vocal social activism can negatively impact a brand, and this risk should make communicators nervous. But there is also tremendous potential upside if you choose a worthwhile cause and establish your position with a well-thought-out plan for execution.

Take, for instance, an AMA article from 2018 that covered the Edelman Brand Report, which highlighted that 64 percent of consumers want to buy from brands that take a stand on social issues. That statistic alone makes a strong case for taking a stand on social issues. And so does helping to make a positive impact on society.

The key for communicators when recommending any sort of controversial stance on an issue is to make sure it aligns with the brand. Communicators of all types, even B2B brands, need to make sure their key communications goals genuinely align with who they are and who they are looking to connect with.

We, as communicators, should be the last line of defense on whether taking on cause-related stances is more than just a great storyline. We need to make sure any social stance rings true to the core values of the company and is reflected in the executive board, brand message and potentially even in the company’s product or service offering. It’s what we do best, when done well.

That said, anytime you take a stand on a controversial issue, there is the danger of coming across as tone-deaf or misaligned with your target audience. And there are quite a few examples of this -- think Pepsi and Kendall Jenner. That was a disastrous marketing message that didn’t even align with the Pepsi brand.

It’s up to the communications professional to understand how to develop and deliver good cause-related communications messaging and be strong enough in their feedback to squash the terrible messages, even if they appear creative and edgy at first.

At our firm, we have a formula for these types of issues. If our creative approach passes through these four framework questions, we move forward with creating either the messaging statements or the engagement ideas. If you are looking to incorporate some cause-related messaging, use these questions in your next creative meeting:

Does this align with who we are and what mark we want to leave on the world? If yes, move to question number two.

If this social stance offends many of our customers because of the issue (we don’t purposefully offend), are we OK with that? If yes, move to question number three.

Is it more important to impact change with this statement, idea or approach than it is to sell products and services? If yes, ask yourself question number four.

Are we doing or saying this to make a statement for change on a societal issue or because we think it is creative and we're looking to attract more eyeballs? Hopefully, the answer to the latter part of this question is no, and you can move forward with taking a stand on something controversial, but socially impactful for the brand.

How organizations respond to and address societal issues increasingly plays a pivotal role in communications and overall organizational success. With a measured, strategic approach that thoughtfully addresses the aforementioned questions, your communications team will be armed with the knowledge necessary to navigate making a stand your business -- and its customers -- can feel proud of.

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