How Every Brand Can Find Its Good

In order for companies to generate positive returns from social activism, it’s not about ‘taking a stand’ per se, but what the brand stands for

By Katie Shanagher


Enis Aksoy/Getty Images

The undisputed success of Nike's choice to feature controversial ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its "Dream Crazy" campaign has led a growing number of marketers and brand managers to wonder if their brands should take more active stances on social or political issues.

When the ad campaign launched in September 2018, many industry observers thought Nike was taking a big gamble. But taking a stand and showing its values to the world — even at the risk of offending a sizable chunk of its customer base — earned the sneaker company not only millions of dollars worth of free media exposure, but a 31 percent increase in online sales, according to Time.

The success of Nike's campaign provided a green light for CMOs and senior marketers who see an opportunity for their brands to make values-driven connections despite an increasingly polarized political climate. In a media landscape that's more crowded than ever — and when a growing number of people are hungry for global change — brand activism is an effective way to break through the clutter, spark more meaningful connections with consumers, and make a positive difference in the world.

Nike's "Dream Crazy" ad campaign, featuring ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, helped spark an important conversation about the challenges brands and organizations face when they take a stand on controversial issues. Nike/YouTube


Should My Brand Take a Stand?

The trend has been accelerating for years. Ninety percent of consumers agree that they like when brands use their power for good, according to an internal Blue Chip study conducted during last January's federal government shutdown. The survey, based on the responses from 1,000 U.S. consumers, found that 82 percent of consumers agree they're more likely to purchase a brand that goes out of its way to help others, while 77 percent agree they're more likely to purchase a brand with values that align with their own. What's more, Interbrand's 2017 Best Global Brands report said that brands with a clear purpose of improving quality of life outperform the stock market 120 percent.

However, executing this kind of brand activism successfully is far from easy. While Nike's support of Kaepernick is widely considered a success, who can forget Pepsi's ad campaign featuring model Kendall Jenner, which sparked an overwhelming backlash for implying that a can of Pepsi could solve all the grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Plus, according to Blue Chip research, while 64 percent of consumers agree that they like when brands take a stand on social issues, 34 percent agree that they don't like when brands get involved in politics.

As the divide between the Nike and Pepsi ads indicate, there's much more involved for successful purpose-driven branding than simply attaching a company to a cause wending its way through the zeitgeist.


Brands Do Well When They Find Their Good

Brands that take a stand successfully don't do so arbitrarily. They do so because they've found their good — a good that's aligned with their values, and that's authentic to what the brand represents.

The following are tips for discovering the right way to find a brand's cause-related calling.


Live your brand values at a corporate level.

Brands that do "good" well have a solid grasp of who they are and what they represent and are able to translate those values to how they conduct business. Chobani provides an excellent example. The yogurt brand pays workers, on average, twice the federal minimum wage, gives a portion of its profits to charitable causes, and has made a commitment to hiring refugees.


Understand the values of your target audience.

In order for brands to make the type of difference their target consumers actually care about, companies need to understand what changes their audiences want to see in the world. Sometimes, these are niche and specific. Take REI's #OptOutside campaign, which celebrated its customers shared belief in the benefits of escaping consumerism and spending time with nature. However, more mainstream brands take a more direct route to activism. For example, during the federal government shutdown earlier this year, Kraft responded by supporting a simple value: the ability for government workers to feed their families.


Define precisely how your brand intends to make a positive difference.

While ride share companies Uber and Lyft are archrivals, both brands provide the world with the same core benefit: transportation. A lack of transportation, of course, drives down the ability for people to vote, so both companies offered free rides to voters for the midterm election in 2018.


Consider what kind of good is actually your brand's place to create.

Consumers can smell inauthenticity and opportunism from a mile away. Research shows that consumers tend to be suspicious of brands that, despite what may be great intentions, insert themselves in issues or cause-related conversations in which they don't seem to be a natural fit. Establishing a clear brand purpose — e.g., a reason why a brand exists beyond profit — not only ensures that the brand has room to do good, but also reinforces where the brand should not weigh in. Showing good intentions along with self-awareness will go a long way in building the trust and, ultimately, the loyalty, that consumers crave.


Live your brand's values consistently.

Taking a stand and finding a brand's good is not a one-shot deal. It requires marketers to think in the long term if their efforts are to provide solid returns and strengthen the company's overall reputation. To do so consistently, brands first need to have a strong sense of self. This starts with marketers defining a strong brand positioning and purpose, anchored by a deep understanding of the fundamental role that the brand plays in the lives of consumers. Once a company truly knows its brand mission, understands its target audience, and appreciates its true purpose in the world, brand managers don't aimlessly look for opportunities to do good; they are so entrenched in the brand's values that opportunities will reveal themselves through observations of societal or cultural problems from the brand's point of view.


Be authentic.

Showing a company's true colors reinforces the brand, strengthens relationships with consumers, and attracts prospects. Don't position the brand for something it's not. Akin to a "fake" person in real life, people are put off by insincerity.

A gesture supporting Colin Kaepernick might not be everyone's idea of "good." But it was good for Nike — a statement that aligned with their values, and signaled to the world the kind of company they want to be, as well as the type of like-minded consumers they want to retain and attract.

Ultimately, brand activism isn't simply about taking a stand — it's about showing a brand's values to the world and creating more meaningful connections with consumers in the process. Whether a brand's good leads to a bold and controversial statement or a good that anyone can agree with, doing good well will make a positive difference.

Katie Shanagher is a strategic planner at Blue Chip, a participant in the ANA Brand Activation Partner Program. You can email her at



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