"Stand for something or stand for nothing": How brands are taking on being socially conscious

July 16, 2018

Written by NewsWhip

The role of the brand has evolved. We talked to Edelman, Reebok, Unilever, and Aetna about being socially conscious.

In the past, brands were simply selling their products to consumers. The relationship was mostly impersonal, unlike today, where social media puts consumers directly in contact with brands.

Nowadays, social media users expect their favorite brands to align with them on similar values. Brands are leaning into this new opportunity and “us, not me” mentality, and creating campaigns that touch on issues from plastic waste to gender equality.

As Generation Z (and younger Millennials) come of age, a different standard for a relationship with brands has emerged. These are digital-first consumers and this instant connection has always existed for them — all of their relationships are open and 1-to-1 in the social media age. They expect to be able to openly share their experiences and communicate with anyone they want.

At our WhipSmart summit, we had a panel of leaders at brands speak to their experiences creating socially conscious campaigns. (For more, you can join us on our upcoming webinar where we’ll be discussing how brands can find their own socially-aware purpose.)

  • Moderator: Steve Rubel, Chief Content Strategist, Edelman
  • Dan Mazei, Head of Global Newsroom, Reebok
  • Casey DePalma, Director of Digital Engagement and PR, Unilever
  • Chris Rackliffe, Director of Social Media Engagement Strategy, Aetna 

The evolution of being socially conscious 

Steve kicked off by bringing up a 2017 Reebok campaign that was in reaction to when Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor.

As the incident gained more attention, Reebok’s Global Newsroom mobilized and created shirts with the now-famous tagline, “Nevertheless, She Persisted”. The shirts were made available online with proceeds going to charity.

Reebok’s reactive campaign received no paid support. Even so, the shirt sold out in less than six hours and drove traffic to Reebok’s website, with 80 percent of the site’s traffic coming from entirely new visitors.

Reebok nevertheless she persisted

Steve asked if Dan Mazei could tell the audience about how the brand decides to take these sort of stands that “could be in some eyes alienating or another’s eyes be applauded.”

Dan likened the decision to having a food allergy, and wanting to eat the same “delicious foods” as others are eating.

“Brands need to realize when they’re allergic to certain issues,” said Dan. “When we’re weighing those kinds of decisions, there’s a filter that we that we followed then, and that we follow now, which is to say what’s authentic to Reebok as a brand not only now, but in our history over the course of 123 years?”

“What’s authentic to our consumer that we know to be true? How big is this sandbox or is every brand going to be a part of this, and if so, is it worth commenting on? We have a variety of things that we’re walking through in seconds to decide is this something that we should be a part of.”

Dan said it’s about finding your DNA as a brand and your general orbit. In the case of the Elizabeth Warren campaign, Dan said that politics is generally far out of Reebok’s orbit. “Politics… does not work for us. Now politics because a woman has the right to stand up and be heard whether she’s on the Senate floor or on a gym floor, that’s absolutely in our world.”

“But were you worried?” Steve asked, saying he pictured Dan presenting these ideas in an intimidating boardroom. “How do you sell these ideas?”

“Sometimes we don’t and in that runs a risk, because hands have been slapped certainly,” said Dan. “That [Elizabeth Warren example] happened to be one where I just walked down to the president’s office, said ‘Hey I have this thing, it popped up, and we think that it fits because of X, Y, and Z,’ and he said yes.”

“That is an important part of all of this. All of us have to operate as communicators within an environment of transparency, honesty, and trust with leadership. I think that that trust was afforded to me on this, and our transparency about the pros and cons of it is what allows the thumbs up to happen.” 

The right purpose for the right brand 

“I want to switch now to Unilever to Casey who has a million different brands under the Unilever portfolio,” said Steve, “And often, they’re at diverse ends of the spectrum, even within categories. So, what is the approach that Unilever takes to being a socially conscious company?”

“We believe purpose and being socially conscious is at the heart of everything that we do.” said Casey. “So at the highest level, we’re making sure that everything that we’re doing ladders up to those pillars, but we’re not pigeonholing the brands to have a narrow focus on sustainability. It has to be true and authentic to each brand.”

“That can be very different for Dove as it would be for Axe or for Knorr or for Ben and Jerry’s. Some brands or heritage brands might need to dig really deep to find [their sustainability].

“For other brands, we’ve actually started to curate and launch many new brands over the last year ourselves. One of them is Love, Beauty, and Planet, which is a new haircare and skincare brand, and they’re all about small acts of love for people and the planet and that really manifests itself from the fact that it’s at the heart of that brand.”

Love Beauty Planet Sustainable
“On an older brand like Vaseline, it’s been around for hundreds of years. Vaseline at its heart is about healing and it heals scrapes and burns and things like that.

“So out of that was born the Vaseline Healing Project and there are many different parts of it. Some of it has to do with medical mission, sending germs and medical missions to help vulnerable communities; some of it has to do with donating product and medical supplies. It’s really at the heart of what either a new brand or an old brand and authentic to with the heart of that brand.” 
vaseline healing project social media

This article from Direct Relief cites some of the socially conscious work from Vaseline.

“How do you mix the doing and saying same across those different brands?” Steve asked, noting that sustainability is often a slow-moving process.

“I think the biggest thing for us is recognizing that we’re on a journey,” said Casey. “We know we may not have the answers for everything but if we waited to have the answers for everything we would be nowhere.”

“So we’re okay with taking steps to get somewhere even though we’re not getting all the way there. One example on Love, Beauty, and Planet is the way that our bottles are 100% post-consumer recycled plastic but the caps and pumps can’t be recycled.

“We didn’t not launch a [product] line because we couldn’t recycle those caps, but we’re actually working with municipalities and changing policy around how we can actually get a system in place to recycle those things. So that’s the way we approach it and I think that’s a practical way to go about it.”  

How regulated brands are exploring a purpose

“Chris, let’s talk insurance,” Steve said, turning to Chris Rackcliffe of Aetna. “So you’re in an industry that is maybe deemed conservative, whether it be healthcare or financial in some senses, and then your background is in media and entertainment media specifically, so clearly there’s some change happening in the industry and how you’re pursuing what you do.

“How purpose fits into what you’re doing and being a socially conscious brand?”

“I have a background in media, entertainment, and lifestyle,” said Chris. “So, I had never thought about Aetna. Who here has ever thought about Aetna outside of open enrollment? Nobody. But I looked up the company, I looked up the history, I thought a lot about it and it went back to my roots with Men’s Health and Women’s Health.

“I really enjoyed being able to walk the walk and work for a company that really does believe in your whole health. Aetna just last year launched a new brand platform and brand campaign called, ‘You don’t join us, we join you’ and it really transformed the way that the company speaks to its consumers and keeping that in mind in everything that we do.”

Aetna Tweet Socially Conscious

“We have launched a couple of different initiatives. One of them is to actually go out listen on social platforms like Twitter and Instagram and on topics that are relevant to our brand. We’re listening to those topics and we’re going out and engaging with people who we don’t even know if they’re Aetna members.

“There have been people who have tweeted ‘I’m in my car and I don’t have the motivation to go into the gym to work out’ and we have tweeted with them and they have gone to work out. It’s demonstrating that we do care about your health, we are listening and it’s not just rooted in this idea that like we only care about you when you come and complain to us.

Chris also went over how Aetna launched an initiative called Mental Health Monday, which is responsive to growing cultural awareness of depression and anxiety.

“We’re going out there and talking about it and none of our competitors are, so I think it’s super important. We’re actually having conversations right now about how do we push that even further to arm ourselves with resources to respond to people who respond to us saying, ‘I’m sad, I don’t know what to do about it, I’m feeling depressed.’

“Those are just a couple of ways that on a very specific day-to-day basis we’re trying to change the conversation and route it in something that’s about your well-being and being your partner as opposed to being someone who just reacts to you when we may have denied your claim.”  

How to create socially conscious campaigns

“How do you bring these socially conscious campaigns to life through different types of activations, whether it be earned media, advertising, social media?” asked Steve. “Is it the same way or is it really different across all the different channels or disciplines?”

Dan said, “I think that the toolkit needs to be open for everything that we pursue. If it’s something that we feel like we have to do discreetly, I question whether or not we should do it at all. I want to go down as many routes as humanly possible with anything that we’re willing to put our name behind.

“There are times obviously where it calls for something much faster.” Dan said, “You can’t put together a full-blown campaign around something that happens in [pop] culture obviously, so you deploy what you have available resource-wise to do that.

“But I think that we as marketers and communicators would be remiss to not use all of the available lanes that we have today at our disposal to get these purpose-driven messages out there as much as possible.”  

Measuring impact

“One question here is impact, because impact here is not likes, retweets, shares,” said Steve. “Those are KPIs, but impact is people are changing their behaviors. How do you look at impact in the in the socially conscious arena?”

“We reach two billion people a day with our products all around the world,” said Casey. “Every interaction with the product is a reason to reinforce the reason for us being and a reason to reinforce the purpose so that’s truly where the impact is.

“Literally, 150 years ago Unilever was founded on the purpose of making cleanliness commonplace. That is much more common now but in certain parts of the world, we have brands that are focused on helping to educate around hand-washing and they’re making tremendous strides at actually saving children’s lives.

Dan added, “Our brand ethos is ‘be more human’ and we see a world where we want people to be their best selves physically, mentally, and socially, and so that’s an enormous task.

“There’s no KPIs for that but I when as a marketer I can run my thumb through my feed and see people being more human consistently every single time, maybe I shouldn’t be here anymore because we succeeded.

“Every day, there’s an opportunity to convert someone. We happen to have a podcast that that’s launching today called “Flipping the Game” that tells the story of the first sneaker built for women and uses that as a vehicle to expose the deep inequalities that continue to exist for women, not just in our industry but in culture broadly.

Reebok flipping the game
“Things like this that we can do to draw attention to issues that can empower people to be their best selves, that’s what is responsible to do. I think that job really never ends so [the impact is] more qualitative absolutely and I wish that there was an answer for [measuring impact] because then everyone would do that.”

Steve asked Chris about measuring impact at Aetna, particularly around being in an industry dealing with very slow changes.

“What I can say is we are leading with marketing first in our organization and then bringing that back across the entire organization,” said Chris. He brought up the challenge of Aetna having 60,000 employees, who will need to align on Aetna’s socially conscious mission.

“[Then] when health plans do come to market in two to three years, they will more embody this idea of wellness being a partner on this journey with you, covering things like acupuncture or massage or a therapist for mental health, and bringing it back full circle,” said Chris.

“We’re not going to see the [business] impact for another few years. On a day-to-day basis, we’re already seeing some positive movement and conversation and that’s a great place to start.”

Aetna mental health

Casey added, “So this is going boil it down really simply, but from a brand perspective it has to be sales. At the end of the day, we know that socially conscious, socially driven, or purpose driven brands grow faster than brands that aren’t.

“We’re not doing things just because they’re nice to do or we think they’re the right thing to do. It’s good for people and it’s good for business so the impact has to come through the fact that we’re actually selling a product.”  

Should brands make a stand on their own or partner up with media?

“There are various ways we’ll go about it,” said Casey. “There are things that we will own as one of our brands [and] there are other spaces where we think there’s an opportunity to partner because there’s credibility brought by a partnership.

“There is this tremendous work that’s been done on Axe over the last few years around trying to dispel the myths around toxic masculinity and what that means for younger guys, from a mental health perspective, but also from a just grooming perspective.”

axe toxic masculinity
“That’s not something that Axe could do on its own and knowing that it was such a shift from kind of the girl-chasing ways of Axe from years prior. So we partnered with partners like Promundo, with Ditch the Label, and others who we could work with that could bring to life programming that would be would resonate and be credible with this audience.”  

How do brands contend with organizational limits, given the need for speed in the digital world?

Dan started by saying, “One of the themes that came out of all the presentations of New Fronts [this year] is the need for brands to ‘stand for something or stand for nothing’, and I think that it’s the recognition of senior leadership at brands everywhere, that standing for something for consumers is the cost of business now.”

Dan said what brands stand for should be authentic to the core of the brand and why it exists, adding, “That recognition then determines things like organizational structure because you should be able to move more quickly to do something that leans into what you stand for.”  

How can brands get topical alignment right? How do they know if they’ve taken it too far or not far enough?

Chris said, “I think it’s important when you can provide value in a conversation or play an important role in it, that’s besides just ‘I want to participate in this’. A lot of brands post about 9/11 and you see them make mistakes every year — it happens every year.

“It’s important to be strategic [and] it’s also important to be nimble. You’ve got to find a balance between the two. There needs to be a reason you’re doing it. You need to be able to provide value and ultimately, you have to back it up for us.”

Casey added, “Relevancy and authenticity have never been more important, but cheap relevancy is never going to work.

“You see this in areas as serious as things like mental health and you see it with things as silly as like National Donut Day. You really have to think whether you’re adding value, but also do you have a right to play? Do you have a right to speak on this? Have you actually earned the credibility to be part of the conversation?”

“I couldn’t possibly agree more,” said Dan. “I’m just going to that that dipping your toes shouldn’t be into new water. It has to be authentic to who you are.”

Dan brought up Patagonia’s campaign, “The president stole your land”, following when the president reduced the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

patagonia land
“The reason that [Patagonia] was able to get up a beautiful site the like the day after, was not because they had 7,000 people working all night to put that together,” said Dan. “It was because they were already doing those things, because that’s who they are.

“It’s core to who they are so it was very easy for them to pull those resources together and make that look like something cohesive, because that is their brand and then they saw an opportunity.
“It shouldn’t be something where you have to recreate or start everything from scratch. That means you’re probably doing something you shouldn’t do.”

Steve added, “I’m biased but you have to meet a lot of communications when these things are being conceived. I don’t mean anyway to disrespect advertising people but if you have PR people or communications professionals who see things in a 360 way, they’ll be able to help ask the right questions sometimes when these things are being conceived. The time to think about that is at the conception. Otherwise, it’s too late if you think about it later on.”  

How can brands prepare for when things do go wrong?

“We have escalation procedures in place that are very specific for certain conversations,” said Chris. “When news does break, it’s important to circulate the information, have the discussion, make sure the right stakeholders are involved, and then figure it out together.

“There’s no one cookie cutter response; it needs to be authentic and sometimes it doesn’t warrant a response.

“Sometimes legally we’re bound to not respond because of regulations like HIPAA and there are certain things we can’t say. There is no one-size-fits-all kind of response. We get everyone on the line right away and then we talk about it and figure it out.”

“The pressure and expectation of brands in this space has never been bigger than what it is right now,” said Dan. “When the NFL players were kneeling and there was a huge backlash to that, there was a brand that will go unnamed that that put together a tweet that had certain words in it. Right afterward [the brand] got scared, changed it, and put that back out to make it more friendly to everyone.

“That was then raked over the coals and the brand paid the price on that. Why? Because they refused to take a stand one way or another. That was their space — they could have chosen to stay silent and that’s an option, but they tried to make it work for everyone. That doesn’t work.

“It’s ‘stand for something or stand for nothing’ and hopefully, we all work for brands that at least know what they are.”

Thanks to our panelists for this riveting discussion. For more on how brands are finding purpose in a genuine way, join us for our upcoming webinar

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