The Risk of Socially Responsible Marketing

Old Navy tweeted this photo of a multiracial family wearing Old Navy clothes last month, sparking a racist backlash online. The situation highlights the risk involved in socially responsible marketing. Even seemingly harmless ads can ignite a storm of criticism. 

Old Navy tweeted this photo of a multiracial family wearing Old Navy clothes last month, sparking a racist backlash online. The situation highlights the risk involved in socially responsible marketing. Even seemingly harmless ads can ignite a storm of criticism. 

Making a political statement is risky business for just about any company. Well, at least according to conventional wisdom.

Fearing the consequences of alienating clientele with a divisive political message has traditionally pushed many business leaders to the sidelines of our political discourse over the years. But as major shifts in demographics and consumer values are quickly reshaping the modern marketplace, sitting out of the discussion might actually do a company more harm than good, argues Hadas Streit from Allison+Partners PR.

“By making the decision not to take a stand on issues and not participate in the conversations that are core to their audience, companies risk having their brand become less relevant in today’s society and culture, which will ultimately hurt their bottom line,” Streit said last week in a post on the firm’s blog.

The greater emphasis on social responsibility in marketing is largely tied to the rise of Millennials, who recently overtook Baby Boomers as the largest generational group in the United States. Survey after survey show Millennials and the younger Generation Z heavily buy into brands that share their values.   

Streit honed in on the rising backlash to a recent string of controversial legislation surrounding LGBT communities in Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina. In all, there are actually more than 100 active bills in 22 states addressing a range of LGBT issues – anything from which public restrooms transgender people can use to whether business owners can refuse to serve same-sex couples, citing religious beliefs.

So far the business community has been anything but silent on the bills, and for good reason. In a Pew Research Center study from 2015, 70 percent of Millennials said they supported same-sex marriage.    

“More than 60 leading CEOs and business leaders from companies like Dropbox, Hilton Worldwide, Facebook, Apple, Salesforce, REI and Yelp signed an open letter calling on Mississippi’s Governor to repeal the ‘Religious Liberty Accommodations Act,’” Streit said. “The economic impact of businesses backing out of these states has already been felt and will only grow.”

Based on what we know about where Millennials stand on same-sex marriage, speaking out against Mississippi’s Religious Liberty Accommodations Act is a low risk for business leaders. But here’s the truth: For any business interested in socially responsible marketing, even making what seems to be a relatively harmless political statement can still backfire.

Before making a decision to jump into a controversial arena, businesses should evaluate the risks and advantages. They also should weigh their motives and consider whether their engagement fits into a larger corporate strategy. Being intentional before acting is the best preparation for the praise and brickbats that will follow, regardless whether you jump or hang back.

With that in mind, here are a two examples of socially responsible marketing campaigns that have largely been well received and two others that have sparked a mixed bag of reactions from consumers and the business community.

Starbucks – Socially responsible marketing is a cornerstone of the Starbucks brand, and you could go on and on about the company’s successes and flops in that arena. One of Starbucks most praised efforts is its move toward using only “ethically sourced and sustainably produced coffee.” At its annual shareholders meeting in 2015, the company announced 99 percent of its coffee would fall under that category. What that means is nearly all of Starbucks coffee goes through a rigorous third-party verification process to ensure economic, environmental and social standards are met for the farmers who produce Starbucks coffee beans.

Ben & Jerry’s – Last year, the popular ice cream maker used its platform to raise awareness about climate change, releasing a new flavor called “Save Our Swirled.” The company promoted the flavor on its website and social networks. Meanwhile, Ben & Jerry’s worked with an activist group to encourage its customers to sign a petition calling for bold action on climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.  

Target – Weighing in on where transgender people can go to the bathroom, the retailer recently announced that transgender customers are welcome to use whichever toilet they choose at Target. Now, conservative groups like the American Family Association are fighting back against Target. Petitioners are encouraging the consumers to boycott the store, and in an interesting new protest tactic, non-transgender male protesters have taken to using Target’s women’s restrooms.    

Old Navy – At the end of April, the clothing retailer tweeted a picture of a happy multi-racial family wearing Old Navy clothes in a promotion of a customer appreciation sale. Though it sounded harmless to many consumers, the picture sparked a racist uproar on Twitter, leading to yet another retailer boycott. That said, the majority of consumers and many in the business community have come out in support of Old Navy’s ad.