Is social impact the new marketing tool?

Is social impact the new marketing tool?

Attaching social and ethical issues to brands has been changing the way marketing has been conducted over the years. Ever since The Body Shop in the ‘70s, with its message of ‘no animal testing,’ and petitions against ‘unethical’ issues, there has been a rising interest in companies aligning their brand image with social and ethical causes. In a climate of growing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and instant awareness of brands’ attitudes towards social and ethical issues through social media, the Millennial market particularly appears to be holding many companies to account if they don’t ‘speak up’ on important issues. Or if brands fail to communicate in an ethical way. Thus, social impact marketing appears to be the new marketing tool for appealing to consumers, in making their brand image ‘positive.’ Indeed, emotive, heartwarming storytelling around an issue, seems particularly effective for social impact marketing, otherwise called ‘meaningful marketing.’


Take for example, Nike, with their history of embracing social justice issues to align their brand with ‘achieving greatness’ particularly in the association of their products with athletes or people who want to achieve their goals against all odds. Their recent use of controversial former NFL star Colin Kaepernick – who sparked a ‘take a knee’ kneeling demonstration  during the American national anthem to protest the US government’s treatment of minorities – in its 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign ultimately proved a winner for Nike, as its online sales have increased dramatically, despite an initial dip in its share price.



You can see the Nike ‘Just Do It’ ad here.


Another company Dove, with its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, launched in 2004, has used ‘everyday women’ in their advertising, to associate its brand with embracing more diversity in the representation of women, regarding their colour and size.



Their latest ‘I’m Fine’ campaign targets the teenage girl market regarding how the message “I’m fine,” often covers up how they are really feeling. The campaign is part of their Self Esteem Project, which aims to convey the message of aligning their products with the increase of self-esteem in young women.



You can see the Dove ‘I’m Fine’ campaign ad here.


However, often there is controversy and backlash when companies align themselves with social and ethical issues. If brands are seen as cynically ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ in terms of ‘meaningful marketing,’ or deliberately manipulating consumers’ feelings, then their message may be off-putting to consumers. This occurred when Pepsi attempted to align its brand with the ‘youth protest movement’ at the height of massive protests that occurred in the US last year, with Pepsi’s use of Kendall Jenner who pulled out a Pepsi to help ‘solve’ a highly volatile political protest in a commercial. This ad was accused of trivialising issues such as Black Lives Matter protests in the US, and was quickly pulled amidst howls of protests from the public, particularly on social media.



It is especially disappointing if the brand appears to be veering into totally ‘off-brand’ areas, such as when Dove caused offense with ads likening fairer skin to cleaner skin, such as last year, with its ‘White Is Purity’ tagline for a deodorant product, and an ad where a black model takes off her shirt to reveal a white model underneath in a soap ad. Subsequently, consumers were outraged and called for a boycott of the brand. With their more recent Self Esteem Project, Dove undoubtedly hopes to create a more positive brand image again, continuing on from its inclusive Real Beauty Campaign.


Also, when Anita Roddick sold The Body Shop to L’Oréal in 2006, there was much controversy, due to the ‘no animal testing’ issue. However, last year The Body Shop was sold to Brazil’s Natura, and has begun its No Testing on Animals petition campaign in earnest again, returning to its ‘activist roots,’ hoping to reclaim its brand credibility, and re-establish trust with consumers.


Thus, social impact marketing, or ‘meaningful marketing’ appears to indeed be a new marketing tool for companies. However, it seems to only be effective if it is consistent with their brand message, if it somehow ‘fits in’ with the products they are trying to sell, is culturally aware, and is not just seen as a marketing ploy that cynically manipulates consumers’ feelings.

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