Corporate Responsibility in the Age of Content and Social Media

Trust is more valuable than ever. Our relationship to information has been fundamentally altered by the rise of grifters, scammers, and fake news. That’s true whether they work in business, politics or, as the ill-fated Fyre Fest proved, for brands new and old. As a recent Sprout Social report found, 86 percent of Americans say transparency from businesses is a vital differentiator. So how can interested brands use content to engender trust, and what can they do not to lose it?

Last year, just after Thanksgiving, a post by the menswear brand Noah appeared in my Instagram feed. The ad was out of step with the Black Friday content I’d been seeing—it appeared to be a protest message. Noah posted an image of a skull and crossbones with the message that the online and New York flagship store would be closed for Black Friday. When you clicked that image, a small Marie Kondo-esque manifesto loaded: “We Are Drowning in Stuff.” The brand advocated for, “a tiny rebellion against the mindless (and lately dangerous) shopping that’s encouraged on Black Friday.”

There were a few naysayers in the hundreds of comments, a handful of shoppers assuming the brand just didn’t want to have a sale. But for the most part, Noah’s IG followers responded positively, showering the brand with heart emojis and even debating doubtful commenters. I scrolled through to get a sense of Noah beyond the holiday. It isn’t just that they’re telling the right story, but that they invested time in telling it again and again.

Hitting the right tone

Noah’s stand against Black Friday is just one way the company has made corporate responsibility a part of its messaging. From the website: “Noah seeks to take a stand against many of the appalling practices of the fashion industry. Our clothes are made in countries, mills and factories where tradition, expertise and human dignity take precedence over the bottom line. We donate portions of our profits to causes we believe in.”

That commitment to envisioning a more ethical fashion industry is starting to pick up support. Other “slow fashion” brands like womenswear darlings Elizabeth Suzanne and Jamie + the Jones also divested from Black Friday last year. Other companies have taken it even further. Patagonia, a company that already donates 1 percent of its annual profits, or over $89 million over the last three decades, gave 100 percent of its 2016 Black Friday profits to charity.

“Cause-based brands provide something clear that consumers can relate to and feel good about supporting,” said Elliot Fox, senior brand strategist at Complex Networks. “It accomplishes making their mission and M.O. clear from the jump.”

Like a non-profit, brands can engender support, trust, and loyalty by infusing their content and company vision with a progressive message. But that doesn’t mean brands can jump on the bandwagon of the latest cause. Those moves can backfire like Starbucks urging its baristas to have conversations with customers about race or Kendall Jenner leading the most selfie-worthy protest for Pepsi. They can also befuddle consumers, like Burger King taking a stand on net neutrality.

Instead of the big splashy commercial like Pepsi’s featuring really good looking people using hot-button topics as a way to sell soda, brands that thread their message into what they do very delicately, using social media as a needle, tend to do best.

“We see a trend among Gen. Z that they are interested in supporting brands with a mission that are doing good,” Fox said. “So it’s no big surprise that Noah is a thriving brand in the youth culture and streetwear scene.”

According to one report put out last year by MNI Targeted Media, over half of Generation Z members surveyed about their interests and habits said that knowing a brand is socially conscious influences their purchasing decisions.

Maybe now more than ever, consultants to CEOs are preaching the gospel of instilling brand confidence in savvy consumers. Target audiences have more company information at their fingertips than ever before. And brands are thinking outside the box to build trust.

Honesty is everything

How should a brand use content to prove its ethical practices and connect with people? To start, the progressive causes have to align with your brand values. Virtue signaling is one thing, but publicly adhering to social and political principles, and making sure your staff represents those principles, is another.

The Sprout Social report found that most consumers define transparency as being open, clear, and honest. That’s not as a clear-cut as it sounds. Customers are more equipped than ever to investigate what a company does behind the scenes. Brands that sell a message of inclusivity or environmentally conscious better be ready to back up that messaging with action.

If companies aren’t honest, they’re risking very public pushback from a consumer base that’s constantly expressing itself online. Consider 2017’s viral #DeleteUber campaign on Twitter if you need an example of how company policies can tarnish a brand’s reputation. The company continued to service JFK airport while taxi drivers went on strike against the government’s immigration ban. After the backlash, the ride-sharing app lost a reported 200,000 users.

Uber has gone to great lengths to try and win back the trust of consumers, ousting its own CEO and even setting aside $3 million to help drivers affected by the ban. While the public donations are a good start, maintaining consumer trust really hinges on a consistent, long-term commitment to transparency. The Sprout Social report cites how favored brands like Blue Apron communicate vendor information through their social channels, using Twitter to post recipes and profiles of their suppliers, and creating YouTube content to illuminate how they make certain ingredients.

Admit your mistakes, then fix them

Companies like Noah and Patagonia have used corporate responsibility to earn the trust of customers (for now). But what if they were to betray it?

Janine Robertson, a PR and marketing manager for Insect Shield, said transparency continues to remain important if things go wrong. “Own the issue or problem. Apologize openly. Outline the impact and changes in effect,” she said. “Essentially eat crow with grace, armed with meaningful follow-up strategies.”

Nike is one example of a brand that managed to change public perception, but it took time. In the past, the company had a bruised image due to ongoing allegations of sweatshop labor. Instead of trying to cover that controversy up, Nike decided to “publicly eat crow” long before Twitter or Facebook existed. “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” Nike CEO Phil Knight said in a game-changing 1998 speech. “I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”

It was a huge deal to admit that in those pre-social media days. After that, the company looked to change course by raising wages, improving factory conditions and their environmental impact, and regularly documenting their progress via a sustainability report. While accusations of Nike using sweatshops have followed the company to this day, the brand is overwhelmingly favored over the competition by millenials, and it’s not just because the company knows how to market Air Jordans. Nike learned how to craft a message and put collective weight behind it.

In 2018, Nike continued its focus on corporate responsibility by featuring former quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign with the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ads spoke to a younger, more politically conscious audience. Then came the ensuing backlash. Videos of people lighting their Air Max shoes on fire, waged by people who believe NFL players don’t have a right to protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, only fueled the passions of the core audience that Nike wants to capture.

Sure, the commercial was noteworthy, but Nike was being tested—were they really a progressive corporation that could connect with people?

“I think it’s about not being afraid to be open and honest with consumers, which sometimes means taking a risk,” Fox said. “Nike’s Kaepernick campaign was a good example of that last year. When they rolled out the campaign, there were various posts and quotes in articles with people from Nike discussing their inspiration and opinions behind the campaign. They came out across various platforms with a unified voice and opinion about what they were doing, and they stuck to their guns the entire time.”

The gamble ended up netting the company $6 billion in profits. But how long will consumers champion a brand that strives to be responsible on one front while organizations like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) continue to call for boycotts?

In an environment where transparency and a progressive mission are key to the hearts of many consumers, only time will tell. But as the saying goes, trust takes a long time to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.

Image by South_agency

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