It wasn’t long ago that it was taboo for brands to publicly engage in politics or take sides with social issues. With the changing tides in demographics and growing cultural wars, however, these old rules are being shelved and replaced with new ones. As a combined voting block, Millennials, Gen Y and Gen Z now outnumber voters from the Baby Boomers and Silent Generation. This younger, influential group expect brands to take a stand on social causes and demand change. A Toluna marketing survey of 1,000 U.S. adults found that millennials are the most inclined age group (49%) who seek out brands that support causes more than any other generation. According to Sprout Social, 65% of consumers feel it’s important for brands to act on political issues.
In our last blog post, we examined purpose-driven brands. We wanted to take a closer look at brand activism and in particular -- Nike. A new controversy erupted recently when Nike decided to pull a sneaker bearing the Betsy Ross flag. Nike’s Just Do It brand ambassador and football star Colin Kaepernick, however, asked the company to revisit their decision. Kaepernick’s request was based on the flag reflecting a period in time when slavery was widespread. Unfortunately, just as the Confederate flag reflects support for slavery and has been widely adopted by white supremacists, the Betsy Ross flag has also become co-opted by white nationalists and other hate groups that object to America’s growing racial diversity.
Nike’s commitment has always been crystal clear well before this latest controversy. “Purpose Moves Us. We are committed to creating a better, more sustainable future for our people, planet and communities through the power of sport.”
Like Patagonia, REI, Starbucks and others, Nike is willing to take on social issues, noting that they are unafraid to use their voice to take a stand for global challenges like inequality and climate crisis, cultivating a culture of inclusion. In a statement, Nike noted that it pulled the sneakers “based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.” Politics aside, their decision to pull this sneaker was also aligned with their brand and core values.
Approaching the one year when Nike first unveiled its selection of Colin Kaepernick as the face for the company’s 30th-anniversary ad campaign, many thought it was too risky and a bad move. Over the long term, the jury is still out, but so far, Nike’s bold move has seen its sales on a tear. Revenue from Nike-branded goods in Apparel & Accessories, Shoes, and Sports and Outdoors categories increased 32.3% in the month after the campaign launched, compared to the same period last year, according to Rakuten Intelligence. The research company also found that online shoppers show an affinity for these brands, with 19.1% of category buyers choosing Patagonia, Nike, or REI over the past year. Despite the risk, these brands may be taking for social causes brand activism is winning the dollars of more younger buyers. Of the 5.5 million shoppers that Rakuten surveyed, 91% tend to buy from one brand, and 76.2% buy Nike alone.
A Fuze Marketing survey on social activism and cause marketing revealed that 85% of Gen Z believe companies have an obligation to help solve social problems. And after learning a brand supports a social cause or is socially responsible, 85% of Gen Z respondents are more likely to trust the brand.
It’s likely that many companies today are still hesitant to begin adopting and embracing social issues and causes, perhaps thinking that this is reserved for select brands. Not so. Just this week more than 200 companies took a public stance in support of LGBTQ rights, signing on as a ‘friend of the court’ brief to the Supreme Court, pushing for existing laws that cover sex discrimination also protect LGBTQ workers. These companies included the likes of Amazon, Apple, Adobe, Ernst & Young, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Salesforce and Xerox to name just a few.
So when and how should a company revisit their core values to start supporting social causes? They need to first really understand their core values and really understand their customers. The causes they decide to support need to be brand-aligned. And companies need to be authentic in their commitment. They also need to do more than lip service or some occasional charitable donation. They need to demonstrate a genuine effort and ongoing, long-term commitment, which can blossom into a number of innovative, forward-thinking programs that help underscore other aspects of your brand and core values.
It’s important for companies to remember that the purchasing power of Millennials, Gen Y and Gen Z will only continue to grow, underscoring the need for companies to begin taking steps now along a path of corporate social responsibility. Further, consumers are looking to connect with brands that elicit emotional reactions and help them align with similar values and beliefs as their own. As in the case of brands like Patagonia, Nike and others have found, taking a stand is proving to be worth the risk.