The Why and How of Brand Advocacy

Today’s consumers want brands to do more than offer quality products and services. People are looking to support companies that take a stand for social causes and create a positive impact in the world.

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What’s more, trust in government is low and faith in religion is decreasing.

Additionally, the nonprofit sector does not have the fiscal resources necessary to deliver the change the world needs at scale.

These factors foster a fertile environment for conscious companies to advocate for important causes and establish a reputation as social leaders.

In return corporate changemakers benefit from consumer goodwill, new partnership opportunities and earned media. Not to mention the merits of using business as a force for good to build a better world.

Here’s how to strengthen your brand by advocating for social causes:

Take a stand: Companies that utilize owned media and brand outreach to advocate for social causes send a clear message to consumers. Additionally, making a statement about an issue that’s bigger than your business or industry can generate earned media and strengthen connections with conscious shoppers.

A recent example of a brand taking a stand — or taking a knee — for a social issue is the NFL. After President Trump admonished players for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racism and police brutality, players and owners alike showed their consolidation around equality, justice, and freedom of speech by linking arms at a game in late September.

Some of the NFL’s conservative viewers have stopped watching the games, claiming it is getting too politicized. However, the NFL commissioner believes the protests show the values of the sport, and industry as a whole, and will ultimately bring the players and the country closer together.

The lesson here is that by taking a clear position in support of a social cause, you can distinguish your brand as a unifying force in society and generate earned media.

Form partnerships: Social advocacy presents unique opportunities to make partnerships around a common goal. These collaborations include working with nonprofits, the public sector, and other purpose-driven companies towards a shared vision.

The climate movement it is in excellent example of unlikely partnerships between companies, NGOs, and government all working toward a low-carbon future.

Specifically, after the Paris Climate Agreement, companies, local and national governments, and nonprofits took a public stand for climate action. Organizations like RE100, We Are Still In, and the We Mean Business coalition bring climate-conscious leaders together to share insights, lobby for climate-smart policies, and make meaningful connections that progress both business and environmental goals.

The key takeaway is that advocating for a cause can open up collaborative opportunities to scale purpose and profit.

Leverage financial influence: Companies often have more financial freedom then political leaders and nonprofits because they are not dependent upon votes or donations to pay the bills. Therefore, purpose-driven business leaders can leverage financial assets to sway other decision-makers to promote social and environmental causes.

A great example of brands utilizing their financial positioning to advocate for a cause was the Bear’s Ears National Monument conservation campaign. Patagonia, REI, Black Diamond, the Outdoor Retailer Show, and other outdoor apparel brands were unhappy with the Utah government’s desire to rescind or reduce the land area protected under the Bear’s Ears National Monument. In response, the coalition told the government that they would move The Outdoor Retailer Show, which brings in over $50 million annually, to another state if the government didn’t change its stance on preserving the Monument.

This campaign promoted both environmental conservation and the brands behind it. Major news outlets such as the Guardian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and others covered the story. Ultimately, by utilizing their network and financial influence the brands were able generate positive media coverage and advance the cause.

Engage consumers: To truly inspire consumers to feel a connection with your brand that goes beyond financial transactions you must not only connect with them about issues they care about, but also invite them to get involved.

Many brands created social media hashtags and made financial contributions to advocacy groups during 2017’s Gay Pride Month. Brands like Nike, Adidas, Levi’s, and others showcased their support for equal rights and invited consumers to do the same. Apparel brand Everlane did a great job of engaging consumers by donating $100 dollars to the Human Rights Campaign in the name of the first 10 people to post a video with the hashtag #HumanTogether on social media.

Ultimately, by creating an opportunity for consumers to get involved in an issue they are passionate about your can inspire goodwill and scale the organic reach of your marketing initiatives.

Be prepared for backlash: Despite good intentions and positive outcomes, brand advocacy is often faced with backlash from individuals with opposing views. Despite this risk, brand advocacy is an excellent way to showcase how your company is building a better world and contributing to society in a way that goes beyond profit for profit’s sake.

That said, you can prepare your brand for consumer backlash with a robust PR strategy. A recent example of a company that did a great job handling consumer backlash in response to a social campaign is Starbucks. After President Trump announced that he would restrict travel from Islamic countries, Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees within the next five years. This action garnered some negative feedback on social media, specifically, skeptics questioned why Starbucks wasn’t hiring 10,000 Americans instead of refugees. In response, the company promoted comments from veterans who backed the brand by reminding consumers that the coffee giant also committed to hiring 10,000 veterans; hiring refugees was not going to take away from their patriotism.

The key takeaway is that using your brand to advocate for social causes not only creates a positive impact in the world, but also establishes a philanthropic image, an increasingly important value to today’s consumers. If you can make your customers feel like they are supporting causes they care about when they purchase your products, you will carve out a competitive advantage and be rewarded with loyalty and purchases.

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Title image via Flickr courtesy of user John Fowler at

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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