Connecting Brand to Social Issues via Cultural Marketing

Within every social issue exists the opportunity for a person, entity or a brand to make a positive impact by focusing on social good. For marketers, the opportunities represent a new frontier for increasing connections with the communities they serve: their consumers. However, there seems to be varying levels of understanding and commitment to the cultural and social roles, responsibilities and impacts relative to their marketing and positioning of their brand, product or service.

The purpose of this blog is to illuminate the potential for social good and its potential for value creation by connecting a social issue to your brand.

This is a unique approach to marketing. Think about Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, Always’ Like A Girl or even Lane Bryant’s I’m No Angel have made a conscious choice to connect their vital-to-business marketing strategy and approach – shifting them from a traditional marketing focus – to a strategy that includes cultural marketing.

Dove, for example, identified a core insight: many women do not feel beautiful every day or even any day. So, they extended the conversation to discuss what beauty is and to challenge the stereotype (no doubt created by marketers just like themselves) associated with beauty. In doing so, they have created social good in building the self-esteem in women. Lane Bryant has tackled the issue of body ideals, and played a significant role in starting the conversation that you don’t have to be “skinny” to be beautiful; addressing a serious social issue while making their brand relevant. Always addressed the cultural challenge of self-confidence in young girls as they enter puberty, empowering this community of young women at a challenging time in their lives.

Cultural marketing addresses social issues at the core of the communities the marketers serve. And, because these marketers have shifted their focus, they have been able to develop campaigns targeting community members who are willing to engage, participate with and, ultimately, further the brand’s messaging because of the cultural insights they have chosen to affect.

These successful brands, social constructs of sorts, have strategically integrated their messaging into the marketing and media-based communication channels to participate in consumer culture while also affecting social issues, principles and responsibilities.

In doing so, cultural marketers are positioning their brands well within normative social and cultural boundaries. But they are doing so in a way – based on consumer behavior and a cultural insight – that creates a highly affective point of impact in the minds of the audiences targeted, and even extends messaging into actual social programming.

At the other extreme, there are brands that are pushing messaging beyond widely-accepted, normative cultural boundaries are influencing their consumer base to a space that is not good.  Although this may be a good example of unintended consequences in this space, there is no explanation of how these culture-marginalizing brands are making a positive impact on their community. Yet their messaging is making positive gains for their respective brands in terms of awareness and contributions to the bottom line.

To successfully integrate a brand into a cultural marketing effort, there are several best practices in which marketers can engage to ensure that their brands are positioned in a way to sustain and promote socially responsible principles while also staying true to their brand’s business objectives, allowing them to build deeper, long-term relationships – in marketing lingo known as brand loyalty – with their consumers. In doing so, marketing will continue to serve its valuable role in the consumer culture while fulfilling a vested responsibility to the communities and consumer audiences it serves. So, through a combined lens of marketing, cultural sustainability and social responsibility, these best practices will be presented as a guide for companies that seek to promote their brands in a socially responsible manner, thus making a positive impact on the communities and cultures they serve.

Best Practices

Know Your Audience

Dig deep. Spend time with the data and develop a holistic view of your consumer and their challenges. Then, and only then, will you be able to get the results you desire and change the unintended consequences into positive social change.

Recognize the Point of Need/Prepare for the Hypocrisy

Connecting your brand with the social mission creates an opportunity for the critics to question your intentions. Is the brand doing this solely for the financial or market share benefit? If the Connection/movement is well founded in research, and you truly desire to make positive social change, then fight your fight and change the world.

Be Authentic

Authenticity was and is a marketing buzzword. Brands made every effort to be authentic to the category in which they participated. However, much of this “authenticity” was, in fact, contrived. Now, consumers are very aware of the personality of brands. They are savvy and able to detect whether the narrative of a brand is genuine By participating in and addressing a social or cultural issue, a brand may be able to make positive steps towards enjoying a true relationship with their consumers.

Don’t Be Overwhelmed by the Cultural Challenge

Child hunger. Homelessness. Clean water. They are cultural issues. These issues are

not going to be changed overnight. And, unless there is a major movement or crisis to shift the issue, understand that small, incremental steps are required to make change. And eventually, many small steps will add up to giant leap. Brands have the power to shape culture and create social change.

Stretch

Dig beyond the top layer of research and consumer insight. See what lies beneath. The more you dig the more you will discover. Look for alignment between your business strategy and insight-based opportunities among the communities you serve. And, while this may be overwhelming at times, it will create more content and discussion points you can use to further the larger discussion and dialogue within your community. This creates a stronger bond between your brand and your consumer while increasing loyalty and the potential for a longer-term relationship, which can result in greater profitability and market share.

There is an opportunity for brands to do good. The list of companies who do good is long. But the list can be made longer. And do so for good reason: increasing the value of the brand, which ultimately increases the company’s market capitalization. However, many social activists question the true intent of brands participating in this social space. Cynics who question the intent of these brands are passionate to resist the good that can come from the brand’s efforts. Are they really in it for the social benefit or simply taking advantage of strong consumer insights and culture and participating for their own benefit? As long as there is a mutually beneficial relationship – where the community needs are being addressed and the brands are positively advancing their business and the social issue they are addressing: look to embrace them and let them be part of the change. However, if the approach is flawed, get involved and look for opportunities that do mutually benefit the issue that they – and you – truly care about.

In the end, marketers are marketers not social activists. They are looking for ways to participate in a social space of which they are not fully aware. They are taking bold steps into an unfamiliar area. They need guidance from people close to and engaged in the issue. They relish consumer and cultural insights. They seek wisdom. After all, their goal is to increase their company’s market share and profitability while doing some good.

Or is it their goal to do some good while increasing their company’s market share and profitability?

Andy Kovan