Don’t miss Josh’s panel “What You Didn’t Know About MR in Associations and Nonprofits” at the Insights Associations’ Corporate Researchers Conference on Thursday, October 24th at 1:30pm. Details here.

This post originally appeared on The Insights Association’s blog.

Nonprofits Associations doing good corporate activism

As Millennial and Gen Z buyers continue to demand additional transparency and corporate responsibility, brands feel the pressure to act out and communicate social and political stances on behalf of their customers/constituents. This type of responsibility is old hat for organizations like the IIA and the NRA who represent the Internal Audit profession and gun owners, respectively. They carefully consider how to define and serve their topic and their people. On the other hand, when a clothing or food brand chooses its position on a current polarizing issue, the degree to which its stance and image resonates with the core beliefs and behaviors of its intended customer community impacts the resulting loyalty, emotive connection, buying preference, etc. of this group. This brings on a whole new set of risks for marketing and marketing research leaders, ranging from the more obvious misses, such as selecting a particularly offensive stance to accentuate thereby alienating the core customer group, to misaligning corporate communications and behaviors.

Corporate Activism and the Consumer

It has become more important than ever to consider how your organization deals with activism or advocacy with a customer base who is highly conscientious about where they’re spending their money. Consumers today want more than just a good product or a low price – they want to know that the companies they’re giving their hard-earned money to are doing good in some way. A rare handful of companies have made a point of clarifying their approaches to ‘doing good’ to their employees and the public.

With a recent Nielsen study showing percentages greater than 50% across the board – and some areas as high as 90% – of respondents who are very concerned about environmental issues, it’s clear that companies need to consider how they are contributing to the causes that are important to their customer bases. In fact, 81% of respondents felt strongly that companies should be helping to improve the environment, according to Nielsen. This is just one example of philanthropic causes in which companies are expected to be involved, however. Many other forms of corporate activism are growing in strength, and if your company isn’t jumping on board, you might be left behind.

One needs only look at companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, Apple and others to see prime examples of corporate social activism. CEOs like Tim Cook of Apple and Howard Schultz of Starbucks are speaking out for the causes in which they believe, including commentary that affects public views on legislation and public/police relations. Ben & Jerry’s goes so far as to have a “Corporate Activism Manager” position to manage its many different activism campaigns.

The Danger of Uninformed Corporate Activism

However, the world of corporate activism/advocacy can be a complicated area for people to play in, so it’s best to do your research beforehand. Two of the most common problems that can arise from entering into the activism space are 1) ostracizing a part of your customer base that disagrees with your stance and 2) inciting backlash if your stance doesn’t align well with your company.

Gillette’s “Be a Better Man” campaign demonstrates a real-life example of these problems coming to a head. In its campaign against toxic masculinity, Gilette risked turning off some of its customer base that didn’t agree with its stance, while also angering those who believed it was capitalizing on an important cause (the #MeToo movement). This led to calls for a boycott of the brand.

Another prime example of activism/advocacy going awry is the now infamous Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The tone-deaf ad caused massive outcry for appearing to trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement by insinuating that sharing a can of soda is all it takes to calm everyone down and create peace. When Pepsi pulled the ad, the company released a statement saying it had clearly “missed the mark” and “did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” but the commercial lives on in infamy as an example of the dangers of playing in the complicated arena of social advocacy without the proper research ahead of time.

Learning from the Experts

In contrast, some companies involved in corporate activism have made the smart move of partnering with nonprofits who are experts in the areas they are getting into, like Ben & Jerry’s. Ben & Jerry’s partnered with 350.org, a climate change nonprofit, on its campaign for renewable electricity leading up to the Paris climate conference. Associations and nonprofits have been doing this for a long time, and the companies who are strategic enough to partner with these veterans realize this.

These types of public activism are something that associations and nonprofits, such as the Susan G. Komen, do all the time. Nonprofits and associations (and the researchers who work with them) have been navigating the waters of social activism and advocacy from the beginning, so it stands to reason they have learned a lot along the way. Companies just entering into this world would do well to look to these nonprofits and associations for guidance and realize there is a lot they can learn from those who have operated in this space for a long time.

For example, associations have had to deal with living, breathing communities rather than just a transactional relationship with their customers or supporters. The relationship is vastly different when you start looking at your customers/supporters as constituents, factoring their loyalty to your organization into the decisions you make. This is unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable for companies that haven’t done this before – the idea that you’re both beholden to each other to accomplish these goals. You have this closer relationship where you’re trying to promote what your community wants, not just what is good for your organization. Therefore, you can learn many tools, techniques, and approaches from associations who already have these existing groups and have been forced to deal with this non-transactional relationship from the start.

Corporate activism is on the rise, and the general trend is to move toward companies that “do good” in their own ways, educate more, and share the stories of their brands with their clients being the heroes of the stories. Companies that want to engage in social activism can continue to learn from NPOs and associations that have developed these loyal relationships with their customers.

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