What do your customers want? 

High-quality products and services? Sure. 

Competitive pricing and great customer service? Yep.

But they also want you to change the world. 

More specifically, they want you to have an opinion on the big issues, and to take concrete steps to bring about positive social change. 

Engaging with social issues can be a powerful tool for increasing awareness of your brand, and for promoting loyalty among your existing customers. Surveys have consistently shown that consumers – and particularly younger groups – expect the brands they engage with to have a social conscience.

There’s a catch, though. 

Engaging with social issues can be a minefield. The recent backlash over campaigns by  Uber, Starbucks, Keurig, and the NFL shows that such campaigns can easily backfire if they are not carefully thought through. Customers can easily spot brands who claim to have a social conscience “just for the likes”, and are quick to call them out. 

Because of this, the key to designing a socially-engaged campaign is honesty. In this article, we’ll show you how to do that.

The Value of Social Engagement

First, let’s look at the value of social engagement for brands. The most recent detailed research on this topic has been carried out by Sprout Social, and it shows that consumers want brands to indicate their values more than ever before.

This research found that two thirds of the 1000 customers surveyed wanted brands to engage with social and political issues. Most of these people also said that they thought that social media was the best place for brands to do this. These numbers also show a significant trend by age: in the 18-34 age group, fully 73% of people said that they would like brands to speak up in this way. 

It’s also notable that consumers’ political affiliation has a large impact on how they want brands to act. Among those who identify as liberals, 78% want to see brands take a stand. Conservatives, on the other hand, ring in at only 52%. This is – perhaps – not surprising, but it also has a deeply practical implication: brands should signal their value where these are progressive and liberal. Campaigns that stress traditionally conservative values are likely to gain less traction.

This is an observation that is well evident in successful, socially engaged campaigns. Gap, for instance, recently ran a campaign during which it encouraged both its global headquarters and store teams to “go purple” in solidarity with GLAAD’s #SpiritDay. They partnered with hundreds of national organizations, other businesses, and celebrities to bring anti-bullying work of GLAAD much greater exposure than it would have had otherwise. The campaign was then extended, with Gap signing up to the United Human Rights office’s new set of global standards, which are designed to counter LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.

Another huge issue for consumers and brands alike is the climate crisis. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing brand, has been among the leaders on this issue. The company donates, at a minimum, one percent of its annual sales to environmental groups. It has also directly engaged with efforts to promote sustainable development by building a resource catalog that contains details of its own conservation efforts, resources for educators, and practical steps for website visitors also looking to take action. 

The Dangers of Social Engagement

Examples of successful engagement with social issues are everywhere, but not every campaign has been a success. For every Heineken or GoldieBlox campaign – both highly-regarded campaigns that deal with social issues – there are campaigns like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad.

Pepsi’s “Live For Now Moments Anthem”, as the Kendall Jenner ad was officially called, is a great example of how and why social engagement can go wrong. The awkward title of the campaign should have been an indication that Pepsi had not thought through their messaging, and this became painfully obvious once the ad went on air.

The problem with this campaign was, in short, that it seemed pretty cynical. Many saw the ad as exploiting social issues in the US – primarily the Black Lives Matter movement – in order to sell cola. This was, of course, precisely what this kind of campaign seeks to do, but the problem was that the ad was both completely tone-deaf, and didn’t actually engage with the detail of the issues at stake, save for some vague implication that Pepsi supports social harmony. 

Had Pepsi tested the ad with their target audience, it is likely that this issue would have been picked up sooner. In fact, taking a more dialogic approach during socially engaged campaigns is one of the greatest values of them. If done correctly, and in a way that allows customers input into campaigns, they can be a huge learning experience for brands. A great example of this has recently been highlighted by Russell Dubner at Edelman, who wrote about just how many brands have lost touch with their customers. In thinking about how to regain intimacy and knowledge, he explains that:

“One media company realized they had lost touch with a key customer segment. So what did they do about it? They got out of their New York City offices and into the places where most of their consumers live. And when they did, they realized they had been going about engaging that audience all wrong. Worse still, they had probably (unintentionally) been offending them in the process.”

How To Engage Honestly

All of these examples point to the importance of relevance, honesty, and openness when it comes to designing and implementing socially engaged campaigns. If you don’t understand who your customers are, and what their values are, this can become painfully obvious during a campaign built on signaling your values.

In fact, these principles are evident in all the data on socially engaged campaigns. As Andrew Caravella, VP Strategy & Brand Engagement at Sprout, told Forbes recently, “data shows that relevance is the key factor in establishing brand credibility on a social or political issue.” This central fact can be used to outline a four-step plan for building a successful, socially-engaged campaign:

  1. Stick to the facts. Whatever you think you know about a particular issue, you should ensure that your campaign is based on factual, verifiable data. This has two values. One is that it will defuse the potential accusation that your brand is being overly partisan. The second is that, by engaging with the details of a particular issue, you can avoid the temptation to make the kind of vague, cynical statements that Pepsi was accused of.
  2. Open a dialog. The most successful campaigns actively encourage discussion of a particular issue, or even – as with Patagonia – give customers tools to contribute to solving it. This kind of discussion can be encouraged in a variety of ways, but a particularly powerful one is to signal your brand values through events and immersive experiences. By engaging with your customers face-to-face, and by offering them a unique and engaging way to engage with social issues, you can quickly build a trusting conversation with them.
  3. Empower everyone. Opening a dialog is a great beginning, but this should then feed into a strategy that empowers everyone in your company – from the CEO to your customers – to take action in regard to a particular social issue. Customers will value the platform that your brand gives them to amplify their own voice, and will reward you for providing them with this. 
  4. Lastly, prepare for a backlash. Even the most well-designed campaigns will generate heated discussion, and in fact this is part of their value. However, this also means that you should outline a clear strategy for your employees to respond to negative comments. This strategy should strike a balance between signaling your values and taking on board fair criticism of them. If you back away from an issue at the first sign of trouble, you risk looking like you don’t honestly care for it. If you are too aggressive in sticking to your values in the face of well-intentioned criticism, you risk looking overly partisan.

Engage, Don’t Dictate

Ultimately, the value of campaigns that include engagement with social issues is that they allow you to cultivate a deeper, more meaningful bond with your customers. Friends will continually signal to each other that they agree on a particular issue, often through mild disagreements as to the detail, and this is a great model to adopt for brands as well.

The key to this kind of campaign, therefore, is to use it as an opportunity to engage and empower your customers. If done correctly, this can be mutually beneficial: your customers will be able to amplify their voice using the visibility of your brand, whilst also building a deeper relationship to it. 

But, just as friendship is built on honesty, your social engagement should be too.