Authentic All The Way Down

Courage and authenticity count when brands align with causes.

As I was leaving a doctor’s appointment recently, I saw a sign in the lobby that had been placed there by the building’s management company. It invited me to check out the work they were doing with a local cancer organization. As a civic-minded and charitable person, I suppose I should have applauded the message. In my capacity as a curious capitalist, however, I wondered a bit about what motivated them in putting the sign there and why on earth they selected the organization that they did to support.

I firmly believe that is no longer optional but in fact it’s necessary for brands to align themselves with causes. As I argued in a previous post, the majority of American consumers, especially Millennials, give a lot of weight to a brand’s social image when making a purchase. But when it’s done in a slipshod way it doesn’t have the desired impact and can even have a negative one instead. In the case of the building management company, they had clearly tried to select a cause (cancer) that no one could object to. But in doing so they picked something that makes no sense for their brand. Am I more likely to rent in a building because the management company supports this organization, or am I more likely to simply ask for a decrease in my rent? The same is true to grocery store bag fee donations at the like — at best they shame you into donating, but they don’t enhance the image of the store’s brand at all.

On the flip side, when the brand is well aligned with the cause and can therefore bring some expertise or some unique value to the table, it really resonates and has a tremendously positive effect. Consider the big outdoor clothing companies like Patagonia, LL Bean, and REI. A core part of their marketing message is an aspirational one about exploring the great outdoors. When you find they are active in conservation, it feels almost obvious and you assume that they can add value through their domain knowledge, outdoor programs, and distribution networks. One, Orvis, even goes so far as to provide a matching fund not just for its employees but for its customers’ donations to conservation related causes.

There’s actually a pretty easy test for whether a brand is well aligned with the cause it supports: can it justify spending money from its marketing budget to promote its work on the cause? In the case of the grocery store or building management company, that would be a hard case to make. The causes have nothing to do with renting space or selling groceries. In the case of the outdoor companies or other Millennial-focused brands like Tom’s Shoes, Warby Parker, Etsy, or Shinola, the connection feels so natural that you can’t imagine an ad or a mention that doesn’t include the cause. If you’ve heard of those brands at all, you can say what causes they support. It’s authentic all the way down.

One concern that I frequently hear from marketers is that many seemingly natural or authentic causes might be controversial and therefore turn off potential customers. For example, should tech firms explicitly support immigration programs given that they are highly dependent on immigration to get the skilled labor they need? Or should cosmetics companies support organizations working on women’s equality and advancement? While these might not seem like controversial causes to many or even most people, big companies often fear the anger of even a relatively small proportion of their customers.

But as Richard Edelman and other industry thought leaders have argued, almost all brands benefit more from the enthusiasm of a large group of customers than they risk from the disappointment of a generally pretty small group when it comes to taking a stand on issues. Steering away from controversy at the cost of authenticity leaves a brand feeling just what it is — boring, spiritless, and commodity, trying to be all things to all people but in fact being unimportant to anybody. In the musical, would you rather be Burr or Hamilton?

But how do you know if a cause is successfully resonating? If it passes the marketing test above, there are KPIs that can measure it’s impact. Cause isn’t a good fit for direct response marketing, but it can certainly have a big impact on net promoter score (NPS), employee satisfaction index (ESI), and opens opportunities for earned media, organic social media shares, and brand sharing that money can’t really buy.