Advocating for social change is becoming an expected part of doing business, fueled by consumers who demand that corporations use their resources and influence to accomplish good in the world. Millennials in particular are more likely to spend time and money with brands that are committed to social impact. Doing the right thing, then, is good business strategy.
Advocacy can differentiate you from the competition and build passion for your brand, but successful action requires authenticity and a plan. Here are six important things to consider to help you meet those requirements.
1 // Build The Framework
Most business leaders value strategic planning, but they often overlook the role of advocacy in this process. We’ve seen companies seizing upon current events as opportunities for social action, but their efforts would be even more powerful if executed through an existing framework of advocacy. Here are several considerations for getting started on building such a framework:
• Identify causes that align with your brand and the actions you want to influence.
• Determine what success looks like and how you will measure it.
• Weigh potential risks and outcomes.
• Define target audiences and what actions you want them to take.
• Identify internal and external champions and potential partners.
• Develop key messages and the channels you will use to relay them.
• Consider other logistical elements, such as budget and timeline.
Thinking about advocacy now will add an element of sustainability to your efforts and strengthen results.
2 // Empower Your Employees
Employees can be your brand’s most effective ambassadors. They know your story better than anyone and wield strong credibility. When they’re empowered to share and act, they transform customers into loyalists. Employees’ passions can also guide your company’s advocacy in ways that impact your audiences.
In addition to its corporate commitment to zero-landfill production plants and fuel efficiency, Subaru of America Inc., for example, encourages retailers to meet local needs through the “Subaru Love Promise.” Retailers have hosted animal adoption events, placed recycling bins in a national park, built homes, collected food, and raised money for local nonprofits. Subaru has contributed $50 million and 28,000 volunteer hours over the past 20 years to diverse causes while creating one of the auto industry’s most loyal customer followings.
In 2016, Subaru topped Experian Automotive’s manufacturer and brand loyalty rankings, which analyzed about 6.8 million auto repurchases from 2014 to 2015. Subaru’s advocacy culture resonates with customers who keep coming back, and letting on-the-ground employees have a role in shaping that advocacy is part of why it works so well.
3 // View Customers and Other Stakeholders as Partners
The first levels of business advocacy are taking a stand and devoting corporate resources to a cause or issue, but brands that truly connect with audiences take it farther and engage clients in action. Consumers want to do business with brands that share their beliefs and values, and they want to help shape corporate advocacy.
Airbnb, for example, followed its #weaccept Super Bowl ad with a plan that enlisted the help of its community members. The company offered free housing to refugees, set a goal to provide short-term housing for 100,000 people displaced for various reasons, and pledged $4 million to the International Rescue Committee. Airbnb then asked, “How do you want to help?” People could respond by opening their own homes, making donations, or by telling Airbnb about other urgent housing needs.
Give your stakeholders multiple ways to communicate with you, bring them into the creative process, and empower them to influence your advocacy.
4 // Understand Your Audience
Traditionally, brands have been reluctant to support controversial issues because of the uncertainty involved. The risk is that you will alienate customers or potential customers. If you avoid social action altogether, however, you miss out on a powerful opportunity to make a difference and cultivate champions — of both your brand and your cause — who share your values.
Understanding your audience is the key to operating in a landscape where more consumers demand social action. Remember, your advocacy doesn’t have to appeal to everyone, but it must resonate with your core customers.
What happened with Uber in January 2017 demonstrates the importance of staying in tune with your stakeholders. As taxi drivers stopped working at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in protest of President Trump’s executive order on immigration, Uber turned off surge pricing. Some consumers saw this as a move to profit from the cab drivers’ work stoppage. The ensuing #DeleteUber movement prompted at least 200,000 people to delete their accounts.
Uber saw its action as a business decision, but some customers viewed it as a cynical anti-labor ploy or at least evidence of a company not in tune with the effects of its actions. Although the long-term effects of #DeleteUber are unclear, the company obviously did not anticipate the strong reactions to its decision.
There are many strategies and data tools available to help business leaders understand their audiences and avoid similar mistakes:
• Survey employees, customers, and other stakeholders regularly. Ask them about their thoughts, priorities, and passions.
• Mine consumer reviews, customer service interactions, and social media messages for insights.
• Test corporate messaging and make adjustments based on audience feedback.
Advocacy might, at times, call for taking an unpopular stand, but companies should do so from an informed point of view and be prepared to manage reactions.
5 // Be Transparent and Honest
Before engaging in social action, examine your brand. Remember, a brand is not a logo or an identity, but rather a gut feeling about a product, service, or company that must be nurtured over time.
Advocacy works best when it’s authentic and aligns with your brand. Audiences will be suspicious of action that doesn’t mesh with what they already know about you.
Be up-front about your advocacy alignment; the why of your supporting or directly engaging in causes. If you take a position that represents a significant departure from your brand, do so carefully and take the time to explain your motivations.
Being transparent and consistent fosters buy-in, cultivates employee morale, and increases consumer trust.
6 // Tap Into The Power Of Social Media
More and more consumers are bypassing search engines and turning to social media as their initial point of contact with brands. They’re also using social media in lieu of the company website to submit reviews and customer service inquiries. For these reasons, social media can’t just be a box that you check. It must be a strategic part of your overall operations and advocacy.
• Share stories that connect you to your consumers and your consumers to each other.
• Post regularly to keep audiences informed and engaged.
• Issue specific calls to action.
• Provide prompt, thoughtful, and genuine responses.
Corporate advocacy: the bottom line
Advocacy represents an opportunity for many companies to create positive change in the world and achieve powerful business results. Build your plan, commit to transparency and authenticity, know your audiences, and then act boldly.