Brands are speaking out on social issues, but it could take years before consumers believe their efforts are sincere

Until companies put the work in and hold themselves accountable to commitments, consumer skepticism “is what it is,” a retail and e-commerce analyst told us.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 5 min read

Moments celebrating diversity have become baked into the calendar in the US, especially in recent years: Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, AAPI Heritage Month in May, followed by Pride Month in June, to name a few.

There’s also no shortage of brands that want to join the festivities.

Time after time, consumers have said they want brands to weigh in on topics having to do with culture and social justice. But when brands do, they often face backlash.

“If you look at where brand leaders and CMOs are expending effort, purpose is now such an important topic, and not just purpose in the commercial interpretation, but also this whole shift from primarily focusing on shareholders to stakeholder capitalism,” Margaret Molloy, global CMO of brand consultancy Siegel+Gale, told Marketing Brew. “The stakeholders are your employees, it’s the community, it’s regulators, it’s customers, it’s society at large.”

Between all these stakeholders, brands often find themselves threading a needle when it comes to their involvement in moments like heritage holidays. Many say they want companies to take a stance or voice support, but can doubt their motives when they do.

Limited time only

“Brands have a reflex that if there’s a holiday, they want to post about it,” said Nicole Penn, president of full-service agency EGC Group. But one post a year won’t cut it for brands hoping to convince consumers of their commitment to lifting up different communities year round.

To earn trust, brands need to commit to meaningful investments in a limited number of issues that are significant or relevant to them, according to Penn. And for the topics they’re not well versed in, she said it’s best to keep quiet.

“If you’re a brand celebrating International Women’s Day and you don't have any women on your board, that’s something that’s going to get noticed and called out, and actually will end up being a negative versus a positive,” she said.

It can take work and research for brands to home in on the issues that most align with their missions, said Adam Katz, chief revenue officer and general manager at marketing technology company Sightly. The agency came up with a service called the Brand Mentality platform to help address that.

The platform allows brands to input info like issues, companies, and influencers they care about, and then suggests relevant opportunities to comment on topics that align with that information.

For instance, a brand might indicate that it finds Bumble aspirational because of its mission to empower women, so the platform would flag founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd in the news as a potential opportunity to engage in conversation about gender equality.

“Our hope is that you’ll learn through the data that doing this consistently is even more powerful than doing it one time,” Katz told us.

The long game

Still, it might take years before skeptical consumers see these efforts as genuine—and some of them may never see it that way.

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Claire Tassin, retail and e-commerce analyst for Morning Consult, recently conducted research into consumer sentiment surrounding the 28 brands that took the Fifteen Percent Pledge, a promise to commit at least 15% of shelf space to Black-owned brands. In the month following these pledges and brand statements showing support for Black Lives Matter, she found that these moves didn’t lead to any meaningful lift in brand favorability or purchase intent among Black Americans.

Brands likely won’t be able to gain favor with consumers until they’ve dedicated years of work to their social-justice efforts, including publicly holding themselves accountable to commitments, according to Tassin. In the meantime, consumer skepticism “is what it is,” she said.

“Brands, at the end of the day, are trying to make money, and I don’t mean that in an adversarial or negative way at all,” Tassin told us. “That’s the reality of being in business. Brands that simply make vague statements in support of any of these social-justice movements are probably going to be seen as much more opportunistic than those that can back their statements with real data and real actions.”

If you can’t take the heat…

While some consumers may question brands’ intentions with social-justice initiatives, others might downright oppose them.

Perhaps the most famous example in recent memory is Nike’s support of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he kneeled during the national anthem at NFL games to protest against police brutality. Nike caught plenty of heat for the move, but it also earned the brand enough loyalty to outweigh the backlash, according to Marisa Mulvihill, a partner at brand consultancy Prophet.

Plus, while some people boycotted Nike after its Kaepernick ad, it saw a $6 billion increase in its overall value in the immediate aftermath.

“Whatever position you take, you’re never going to please everybody, but you have to make sure it’s backed by your own values as an organization,” Mulvihill told us. “Taking a stand does mean having some people who stand against you, and you have to be okay with that.”

Marketing experts including Mulvihill and Siegel+Gale’s Molloy agree that corporate social-justice initiatives, despite their risks, are still worth it for business reasons and for the greater good.

For better or worse, brands have become trusted sources of information, and their statements have the potential to “drive more visibility and elevation to the issues themselves,” Mulvihill said. "When brands talk about these issues, they become more visible."

Correction 04/20/22: This article initially described Sightly as a media planning agency. It is a marketing technology company.

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