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In 2020, “brands taking stands” isn’t enough. They also have to take action.

Values. Purpose. Corporate Responsibility. We’ve all heard these buzzwords flying around the advertising and consumer industries for years—and in our current political, social, and environmental climates (hello, election year!), they’ve become even more consequential parts of our everyday conversations. But paradoxically, because these loaded words are being used so often, they’ve lost much of the weight and intention of their meaning.

What actually are your brand’s core values and beliefs?

How do you define its purpose beyond making money?

What constitutes meaningful corporate responsibility efforts?

Countless studies have shown that all of these conversations matter, not only to consumers, but also to a brand’s employees, its investors, and its leaders. 

  • 64% of US consumers will switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stance on societal issues (Edelman’s 2018 Earned Brand Study) 
  • 84% of millennial employees believe making a positive difference in the world is more important than professional recognition (Bentley University’s Center For Women And Business)
  • 93% of high potential top corporate executives say that business should have a positive impact on society beyond pursuing profits and wealth (2019 YPO Global Leadership Survey)

If everyone agrees that having a positive social impact is critical, why are we not seeing more…well…tangible, measurable results? 

Consumers aren’t being fooled by these buzzwords anymore. Proclaiming a purpose or “taking a stand” just isn’t enough. 

Despite 78% of consumers believing that brands need to positively impact society (2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study), only 34% believe that their purchases actually make a difference. (2018 Survey of Young People and Social Change).

There’s clearly a disconnect happening somewhere. But it’s not so much in the questions that we’re asking, but rather, the ways in which we’re defining and answering them. 

How can we take these buzzwordy constructs of values, purpose, and responsibility, and address them in a way that turns our good intent into tangible impact? Essentially, how can brands do a better job at walking the walk, not just talking the talk?


Over the last six months, I’ve had the honor (and challenge) of designing and hosting three Cause Marketing webinars, presented by AIMA and Media Cause, to discuss and offer solutions to some of these challenges. What the net-net is, is this: while there’s no magic wand that can instantly solve everything, there are a few steps we can take to begin engaging in more meaningful, results-driven efforts:


1. Re-examine your brand’s core values and beliefs

Work from the inside out. Start by going back to the principles and ideas that were the building blocks of your company. Ask your employees what issues and values matter most to them. Decide what your organization would be willing to go to the mat to fight for. Then, do the same with your consumers. Where your internal and external values and beliefs overlap, and where your brand is able to provide authentic perspective or support, is where you’ll find the greatest opportunity for impact.


2. Define your purpose beyond making money

If you haven’t come across Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a fantastic construct for helping you get to your “WHY”–your company’s higher-order reason for existing, which, not surprisingly, is quite often tied to your values and beliefs.


I like to call this your “social purpose” (in contrast to just “purpose,” which if you Google, will take you down a mind-warping rabbit-hole of definitions and theories).

By way of all your revenue-generating business functions—people, process, product, and promise—how does your company strive to impact the world for the better?

Crayola is a great example of a brand with a well defined social purpose. Their business purpose may be to have products in every category of arts and crafts, and be the #1 most trusted/purchased brands for parents and teachers. But their social purpose is to help parents and educators raise creatively-alive kids. WHY? Because they “believe in unleashing the originality in every child.” (Here come the beliefs again.) This WHY guides all of their social impact efforts, from employee volunteerism to community involvement, and gives them a clear guideline to return to for any new efforts they might consider. Does XYZ idea help further our social purpose to help raise creatively alive kids? If not, it’s not the right idea for the brand.

In my November webinar, I chatted with Amarena Diaz, Director of Digital Marketing and eCommerce for Mizuno, and Emily Kane Miller, the CEO and founder of Ethos-Giving, and former VP of Philanthropy and Community Affairs for the Wonderful Company, to explore how the most authentic and effective cause marketing partnerships need to tie back to a higher-order purpose than driving social mentions or goodwill toward your brand. You can find the recording here to learn more.


3. Understand what constitutes meaningful corporate responsibility efforts, and how to build the systems and partnerships to support them.

This is where things can get a little tricky. If you caught my Cause Marketing 101 webinar last fall (presented by AIMA and Media Cause), you know that there are almost as many different types of corporate responsibility/cause marketing engagements as there are craft breweries popping up in Atlanta. But not all engagements created equal, nor will they all have the same kind of long-term, sustainable impact on the issue space your company and consumers care about most. You can check out my CM 101 webinar here to learn more about the various kinds, their benefits and challenges, and brands who are getting them right (or often times, getting them wrong).


If you really want to make progress toward a social goal, you have to do more than simply write a check to a nonprofit organization, or create a cool campaign that broadcasts your newly-woke position on an issue. Don’t get me wrong, those are all great first steps–but they can’t be the final word. Real progress and impact are systemic, and take time. Here are a few tips for setting your company up for success:

Whatever your social impact goal is, make sure your internal practices align with it. For example, if your product is a learning app, and your WHY is to make education accessible to everyone, be sure that your internal culture genuinely reflects everyone—from your diversity and inclusion policies, to the representation on your leadership team, to the benefits and opportunities you offer your employees.

Define 1-3-5 year impact goals, and set realistic budgets + timelines to reach them. One Cause Marketing campaign isn’t going to catapult your brand into “Patagonia” status, and it isn’t going to save the forests. Think and plan ahead. Maybe Year One really is just a check to an organization you believe in. But year two should be an effort that gets your employees and consumers involved in reaching your goals.  

Announce your social commitments from the top down, but cultivate ownership from the bottom up. Your employees and your consumers need to hear that you’re committed, but more importantly, they need to SEE it, FEEL it, and OWN it, too. 

Develop long-term partnerships with nonprofits that take BOTH of your organizations’ needs—and audiences—into account. What are the realities of the issue they’re trying to solve? Who are their supporters, donors, advocates, AND beneficiaries? What kind of support would be most valuable to their mission? What does your brand want to get out of the partnership? Does the NPO have any limitations around budget or resources that might impact your initiatives? What is your shared “call to action,” and how will success be measured? It’s critical to have all of these conversations, and align on a plan for your partnership together, before even beginning to come up with ideas for how to activate it. 


My third webinar—Cause Marketing from the nonprofit POV—featured a great conversation with three nonprofit leaders: Tiffany Rivers from Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Jeffrey Brown from Partnership Against Domestic Violence, and Andy Goldsmith of American Cancer Society and Pursuant. We dove deep into the different ways that brands can work best with nonprofits, and provided key actionable takeaways for creating a successful and impactful partnership. You can find the recording here.


Moving beyond “taking a stand” on an issue, to taking meaningful action to help solve it, isn’t a quick road for any brand. But we KNOW it’s the right road to travel. 

As humans, as marketers, as consumers, and as global citizens, we have more power than any policy or governing body to change our society for the better. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. And if you’re looking for an agency to partner with, contact us.


Amy Small is VP, Creative + Brand at Media Cause, a digital agency that helps nonprofits and mission-driven companies accelerate positive impact in the world around us. After spending 15+ years in the for-profit advertising world, she now focuses her efforts on bringing consumer driven ideas and insights to NPOs, and is working to educate both brands and nonprofits on how to build more meaningful, long term partnerships that contribute to the greater good.


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