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7 ways for brands to take an authentic stance

Authenticity may seem intuitive for brands but it is not quite that straightforward.

7 min read

Marketing Strategy

Adweek panel

Ambreen Ali

Marketers are constantly being told that their brands must be authentic, but what does that really mean? Authenticity is crucial when it comes to engaging with consumers online, whether it be through social media, digital video or content marketing. But while it may seem intuitive, being authentic is not quite that straightforward.

Authenticity when it comes to purpose-driven campaigns means not sitting on the sidelines but also not piggybacking on causes. Even highly successful brands like Pepsi to Starbucks have slipped up on navigating that delicate line.

When and how should brands engage in social conversations? Panelists at two Advertising Week events discussed this very challenge and offered these tips:

Find where you fit

Many consumers would probably scratch their heads if they saw a full-page New York Times Johnson & Johnson ad that said, “Black Lives Matter.” What does one have to do with the other?

Yet, J&J found a way to speak up on that social issue when the company discovered that minorities who suffer from blood cancers such as leukemia are much less likely to find a bone marrow donor match than white people because there aren’t enough like donors in the system.

Aria Finger, CEO of, which worked with the brand on the “Give a Spit About Cancer” campaign, said speaking up on this health issue was a natural tie-in for J&J, which has a suite of health and wellness products, and its own way of explaining why “Black Lives Matter.”

Accept cultural shifts

Consumers today expect brands to take a stand. A recent McCann Truth Central report found that while 42% of consumers find brands to be less trustworthy than they did 20 years ago, 84% believe brands have the power to make the world a better place.

Consumers today expect brands to represent their values. They use the products and services they buy to signal their belief systems to friends, family and people they walk pass on the street, says Dena Wilmette, senior global innovation and communications manager for Ben & Jerry’s.

That means not standing for anything, towing the middle line and hoping not to offend anyone, is no longer an option. Brands should really evaluate what their purpose in society is and how they can improve the world, adds Afdhel Aziz, a brand purpose consultant and author of “Good is the New Cool.”

Carri Twigg, a public engagement strategist and former White House official, agreed. She noted that millennials and Generation Z, in particular, expect brands to take positions.

“They aren’t partisan but care deeply about issues,” she said. “You’re seeing companies pay a price if they’re not engaging on those same issues.”

Authenticity for brands is discussed during Advertising Week 2017. Photo credit: Ambreen Ali

Build social equity before acting

Consumers know when a brand is just latching on to a cultural movement without having a history of action on a social issue. Pepsi’s “Black Lives Matter” ad, which was widely panned and prompted an apology, may not have hurt the brand as much if Pepsi could point to a history of working on civil rights issues.

Starbucks’ “Race Together” initiative, which was also criticized, did not hurt the brand as deeply because the brand was seen as better aligned with the issue than was Pepsi, said Aziz.

By being engaged on issues and building some credibility for your brand, you can avoid being criticized for speaking inauthentically about an issue, Mekanism CEO Jason Harris added. “There are going to be times when you stumble, [but less so] if you have credit in the bank.”

Be prepared for losses

Absolut Vodka build a reputation for itself by taking a stance on gay marriage over two decades ago. The brand has a loyal LGBT following, and its position on marriage has only strengthened brand affinity in that market. One of the brand’s most re-tweeted messages was one expressing “absolut support” on the issue, Aziz said.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has validated same-sex marriage in this country, Absolut is taking that message to other markets – including places where that messaging is going to hurt the brand’s market share.

Brands must be prepared to take hits because of their position on social issues, and that shouldn’t be a deterrent for brands, Aziz noted, adding, “It’s not a principle until you lose money on it.”

Know your issues

Companies can’t take a stand on every issue, nor should they, and they should act in ways that make sense with their brand. Authenticity means speaking up on the matters that fit your brand.

For Ben & Jerry’s, that means having a progressive values statement and heated internal conversations with its board before taking action on a problem. “We really look to only activate around those issues that tie deeply to our values,” Wilmette said.

How brands take action should also make sense. If Ben & Jerry’s wants to do something about climate change, for example, it will take cues from like-minded organizations, such as Greenpeace, but will ask, “”What is the Ben & Jerry’s way of doing that.”

Be consistent in the issues you support, or you’ll risk appearing disloyal and potentially hurt the causes you claim to support, Twigg added. “Consistency is incredibly important. Movements and nonprofits rely on that support.”

And don’t assume that a passion for an issue is the same as knowledge about it. Once your brand has decided to speak up on an issue, educate your team and think strategically about how your company can make a difference on it, Twigg advised.

“Passion and knowledge are not the same thing. Take the time to do the research and encourage people to learn before they step out and take action,” she said.

Measure your success

Brands should not be shy about the fact that they are in the business of making money. Social cause campaigns can benefit the bottom line or provide an overall boost to brand image, and those are impacts that marketers should measure.

Ben & Jerry’s measures the impressions of its social campaigns just as it would with other marketing efforts, but the goals for the two are different. Social campaigns are deemed successful based on the actions they prompt. Measuring them allows Ben & Jerry’s to track its progRess and success in moving the needle on social issues important to the brand.

Aziz advises applying an “ROI methodology” to purpose-driven campaigns. Measure consumer sentiment just as you may a net promoter score for social campaigns, and then connect that effort back to how it drives purchases.

“What you need is a healthy dose of altruism and show how it leads to revenue,” he said.

Address functional problems

One strategy Aziz offers to the brands consults is to take the budget of the lowest-performing 10% of their digital marketing portfolio and invest it in branding a tool or product that helps solve everyday problems for people.

He cited Citibank’s sponsorship of New York City’s bikesharing program as an example of how the brand was able to help reduce congestion and solve transportation challenges for New Yorkers while also sticking their branding on bikes all over the city. “Brands have to be useful,” he said.

Unsure of how to begin engaging with consumers more authentically on issues that matter to them? Harris offered this summation: “Start simple, be consistent and go from there.”

Ambreen Ali is an editor at SmartBrief. You can follow her live tweets from Advertising Week @sbosm.