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Advocacy: Just Do It

The Coca-Cola Company pledged to become “water stewards” in 2007, a system-wide goal of returning the water it used in producing its beverages back into nature, creating “water neutrality.” Meanwhile, the beauty product company Dove was becoming sensitive to the criticisms that their products and marketing exist to perpetuate thin, white standards of beauty. Their “Real Beauty” campaigns have since worked to upend discrimination against race, age, body type and more.

These are examples of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a term coined in 1953 by American economist Howard Bowen in his book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. Bowen showed how corporations had enormous power and social impact and therefore an obligation to be responsible with it. As governments in the 1980s increasingly stepped back on regulation, corporations were urged to use their ever-growing power and influence to make positive change, especially as the global effects of climate change became apparent.

Companies also discovered that getting involved in social issues could make them money. Absolut Vodka became a huge brand in the 80s as they advertised directly to gay and lesbian people and supported HIV/AIDS charities. Bigger companies like Apple and Levis soon joined in. Ben & Jerry’s built a massively popular ice-cream company on unique flavours and backing social justice causes, while Nike became a respected corporate leader with their decades of marketing campaigns addressing ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia and immigration rights.

These successes have built a larger trend, what communications researchers Melissa Dodd and Dustin Supa in 2013 dubbed Corporate Social Advocacy (CSA), in which companies “align themselves with a controversial social–political issue outside their normal sphere of CSR interest.” This sounds alarming but CSA includes a wide variety of activities most companies are already doing: local fundraising for charities and schools, raising awareness about social issues, providing volunteer and/or financial support for food banks and people in need, lobbying for legal human-rights protections, or supporting nonprofits working for social justice and equality. CSA is a bigger step, not a huge one, but it must be done with thought and care.

In two infamously opposing CSA examples, Nike stood behind football player Colin Kaepernick as he spoke out against police brutality against Black people while Pepsi was lambasted for appearing to similarly support Black Lives Matter but with an ad that was unequivocal and even silly. The key here was authenticity: Nike had it, Pepsi did not, and our “3 Bees” of Woke Marketing still apply.

A 2022 Gallup poll found that Americans aged 18 to 29 are much more likely to want businesses to take a public stance on social issues (53%) than those aged 45 and over (35%). It’s a growing schism between the younger consumers businesses crave and the older executives making the decisions, frustrated at having missteps called out on social media.

And the pressure is coming from inside the house too, as Public Affairs Council president Douglas Pinkham told the Harvard Business Review: “Employees want to work for a company with purpose — that has values and sticks to them and isn’t hypocritical about it.” Companies whose “insides don’t match their outsides” are increasingly stumbling. In 2022, thousands of Salesforce employees signed an open letter insisting their CEOs stop doing business with the National Rifle Association and recent years have seen seen large-scale employee walkouts at Facebook, Starbucks, over ethical lapses.

The good news is that companies still have way more power than they think. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that corporations are still trusted more than NGOs, government and the media. “As a key trusted institution,” they reported, “business holds the responsibility for elevating solutions for societal problems. By leveraging research, science and trustworthy information, businesses can help close the polarization gap.” Increasing public trust, they advise, begins with reliable communication and facts and building economic confidence though fair compensation, diversity and inclusivity initiatives, and expanding supports.

Barbie director Greta Gerwig being interviewed at the UK premiere

So CSA has enormous benefits but must be done strategically. It requires a solid understanding of all the company’s stakeholders, customers, employees, investors, reputation and capacities. Don’t promise to fix the world, just focus on what’s important to your people and do it smartly. In 2016, for instance, more than one hundred corporate leaders signed a letter opposing the cruelty of North Carolina’s transgender “bathroom ban” and it was partially repealed a year later, a huge success. But in 2023, a misjudged attempt at inclusion from Bud Light ignited a storm of protest from transphobes and the company caved, making other organizations now skittish about supporting trans people and doing more harm than good.

There are risks to CSA — NASCAR in 2020 suffered some fan backlash for banning the Confederate flag from their arenas — but for those companies who do the research, understanding their stakeholders and stand by their causes, the benefits have been enormous, for themselves and the world around us. At Breakfast Culture, we’ve guided several companies through a CSA process we’ve nicknamed Woke Marketing, helping them to reap benefits while avoiding pitfalls. “Woke” is an African-American term of enlightenment that has been increasingly demonized by racist activists (as seen in the video below) but as part of a purpose-led CSA strategy, it’s a clear path forward for all of us.

Breakfast Culture's Woke Marketing approach attracts new customer bases, improves workplace cultures and drives new sources of revenue. Schedule a talk with me today to learn more. Schedule a 30-minute meeting with me on Calendly:

Let's Break Some Eggs! – Jefferson Darrell, Founder and CEO, Breakfast Culture™ Inc.

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