Socially conscious brands; misplaced or proven tool?

It’s fair to say that the last few years have been fairly turbulent. The news cycle has been dominated by stories that have generated polarising opinions and the political, cultural and social ramifications have been, and continue to be, felt on a huge scale.

This prevalence is not only having an effect on the news cycle, but also with brands who are looking to align their communications strategy with some of these issues to help achieve greater resonance with consumers, particularly the younger demographic. While it’s by no means a new concept, it’s a tactic that has been gathering momentum and now seems to fast be becoming a tried and tested way for, particularly bigger, brands to achieve cut through.

Risk versus reward

However, as with any communications activity, thought needs to go into how best to achieve this as well as weighing up any potential risk. Striking the sweet spot can yield fantastic results, but it has to be done authentically to avoid being seen as simply jumping on a bandwagon by savvy consumers.

Two high profile examples spring to mind; Nike’s use of Colin Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary iconic ‘Just Do It’ campaign and Gillette’s #MeToo inspired advert.

Courting controversy

Kaepernick is a former San Francisco 49ers American footballer who was the first to kneel during the national anthem at the start of games in 2016 to protest police brutality against black people. His actions, as well as his selection by Nike, caused a mixed reaction.

Almost as soon as the campaign was unveiled, as well as the close-up shot of Kaepernick’s face with the words ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’ being shared on social media thousands of time, #justburnit also started trending. The most disgruntled Nike fans posted videos of them setting fire to Nike products in protest.

Nike is a brand that doesn’t shy away from showing its support for more controversial issues, so it’s perhaps not surprising they chose this route and I, for one, think they got it right. In what was perhaps the greatest indication that they’d pitched it perfectly, their online sales jumped 31% in the immediate aftermath of Kaepernick being unveiled.

Cultural influence

More recently, Gillette released its #MeToo inspired advert, aimed at addressing toxic masculinity, bullying and sexist behaviour, encouraging men to be accountable for their behaviour. Updating its well-known strap line ‘The best a man can get’ to ‘The best men can be’, it caused outrage with long time users threatening to boycott the brand, calling it out as emasculating and virtue-signalling.

As with the Kaepernick campaign, it was also praised for its attempt to help change a dialogue. Rather than seeing it as ‘anti-men’, Martin Luther King’s daughter, Bernice King, referred to it as being ‘pro-humanity’. What stood out to me the most though was that the strength of negative reaction demonstrated that this was exactly why this kind of campaign was needed. Kudos to them for having the courage to choose an issue which on face value perhaps wasn’t one that their main audience, male and older, would identify with.

As these two examples illustrate, the use of social issues as part of a communications strategy for bigger brands is now commonplace. Despite the inevitable negative reaction, which as we’ve seen can be significant, consumers are placing more importance on supporting brands that align with their own beliefs and values.

Personally, I’m pleased, especially given the times that we live in. As Proctor and Gamble, owners of Gillette, wrote on their website; “It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture.”


Bethan Simkins

Account Director