Your company’s social impact will have a profound impact on the buying behavior of your target customers. Social Impact marketing takes this into account when creating a strategy to promote your company’s products or services and is an outgrowth of more traditional marketing.
On its face, marketing is all about offering the best product or service. If you build it – and market it – they will come. But if that’s all there were to it, companies wouldn’t be paying billions of dollars to Madison Avenue firms to spruce up their image.
Instead, it works best to think of marketing as a relationship. In many ways, people think of your brand as if it were another person, and every customer has their own relationship with that “person.” The better your relationship, the more likely that customer is to buy from your brand.
Social impact marketing is intended to grow these relationships. By gaining a reputation for doing good work for society, your brand can both gain customers, and increase loyalty among your existing customers. Here’s an overview of what social impact marketing is, how it works, and some examples of successful campaigns.
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Social impact marketing is a strategy where businesses take an active role in the community, over and above their core mission as a business. In social impact marketing, a company actively advocates for change, or to advance a specific cause. In this way, a brand functions as a member of society, not just as a provider of products and services.
Social impact marketing is closely tied to the concept of corporate social responsibility – what we used to call corporate citizenship. Simply put, before a company can credibly work for change, they must first embrace their principles in their whole business. For example, if a company is promoting environmental causes, it must start by reducing its own emissions and environmental impact.
Companies that say one thing while doing another are often accused of greenwashing, a concept we’ll explore more in a later section. For this reason, more and more companies are incorporating corporate social responsibility into their mission statements. By making good corporate citizenship central to the business, social impact marketing becomes easy. You simply promote the causes you’re already supporting!
Social impact marketing is important because it’s effective. Increasingly, Americans are thinking about a company’s stand on social issues before they buy. According to a 2017 Cone Communications study, 63% of Americans want businesses to advance the cause of social and environmental change – regardless of whether the government takes a role.
According to the same study, 87% of Americans are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that promotes a cause they care about. Unsurprisingly, the reverse is also true. 76% of Americans will avoid purchasing from brands that promote a cause that goes against their personal beliefs.
The better your relationship, the more likely that customer is to buy from your brand.
This is particularly true for environmental sustainability. According to Forbes, a whopping 73% of Millennials are willing to spend more for a product if the brand is environmentally sustainable. According to the same source, nearly 2/3rds of Gen Z consumers have already stopped buying from brands that aren’t aligned with their values. And 40% would consider doing so again.
In this environment more than ever before, it makes sense for brands to “do well by doing good.” From there, social impact marketing is the next logical step for connecting with socially engaged customers.
A social impact marketing campaign will be effective if it jives with your company’s mission, values, and core competencies. For example, feeding the homeless is a noble cause. But there are many ways to go about it. If you run an online shoe store, you’re probably not equipped to provide any sort of direct help. But you could partner with local homeless shelters to donate new, warm shoes for the people who need them most.
Similarly, small businesses have different resources than big businesses. A major corporation is likely to focus on change on the national level, while a smaller business will achieve better results by doing good in the local community.
Regardless of exactly what you do, social impact marketing requires three essential ingredients: you have to know your customers, you have to be authentic, and you have to be transparent. Let’s take a look at each of those factors.
As with everything else your business does, it’s important to know your customers, and understand what’s important to them. If you launch a campaign that doesn’t mesh with their values, your efforts could actually backfire. This means actively engaging with your customers and asking what matters to them. The same goes for your employees and other stakeholders, who will be key to any campaign’s success.
One way to find out what your customer’s value is to ask them to put your money where their mouth is. No, that’s not a typo. Services like Phin allow you to give prepaid donation credits to your customers and employees. They log in and donate their credit to a cause of their choice. You can see which causes were most popular, and use that information to direct your efforts.
As we’ve already discussed, it’s important to practice what you preach. For one thing, it’s the right thing to do. But for another thing, social impact marketing won’t work if it isn’t authentic.
Consider the recent example of ExxonMobil. They got caught targeting one set of social media ads towards political conservatives while targeting another set of ads to political liberals. The ads targeted towards conservatives emphasized American fossil fuel jobs, while the ads targeted to liberals emphasized the company’s green energy technology. Needless to say, neither side was impressed. The campaign came across as cynical because it was.
This is related to the practice of greenwashing. A simple Google search will yield numerous examples of companies that didn’t practice what they preached. One of the most egregious? An Indonesian paper company that sold facial tissues with pictures of endangered animals, in order to raise awareness. The paper was produced by clearing pristine rainforest where a Sumatran tiger was found dead.
A social impact marketing campaign will be effective if it jives with your company’s mission, values, and core competencies
Because of examples like this, customers are becoming warier of believing companies’ claims. 65% of Americans, including 76% of millennials, will research whether a company’s social or environmental claims are true. If you’re not being straight with people, they’re going to find out.
Of course, this won’t be a problem if you’re already living your own values. If your company embraces its mission at all levels of operation, you won’t have to worry about greenwashing accusations. When someone researches where you stand, they’ll appreciate your brand’s authenticity.
Along the same lines, it’s important to be clear with your customers and your employees about what you’re doing. All too often, it’s easy to get caught up in boardroom-friendly doublespeak about “green initiatives” and “working together for a brighter future.”
That’s fine. But people have to understand what you’re doing. Remember, good advertising is good communication. So communicate clearly. Tell people exactly where you stand on exactly what issue, and show them what you’re doing to promote that cause.
So, how can your company actually make a difference in the world? There is any number of ways, but they can fit into four broad categories: philanthropy, volunteer work, sustainability, and equitable labor practices. If you’re doing these things right, you’ll be well-positioned for social impact marketing.
Philanthropy is probably the oldest way for companies to make a social impact, but it’s by no means obsolete. By giving to a charitable foundation, a company can contribute to work that’s outside its own core competencies. For example, during the scramble for a Covid-19 vaccine, a number of brands contributed to vaccine efforts, even though they themselves had no biotech expertise.
Along the same lines, philanthropy can be a good way to breathe a second life into used equipment. Charities need tools, equipment, and vehicles, and are used to dealing with corporate partners.
Companies can donate time as well as money. There are a number of ways to encourage employees to volunteer in the community. But one of the most effective is to offer paid time off for volunteer work. If someone knows they aren’t sacrificing their day’s pay by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, they’re more likely to do so.
Broadly speaking, sustainability means reducing your business’s impact on the environment. This can take the form of better energy efficiency, use of renewable power sources, or reduced use of material resources.
Lego is a good example of how any company can work on sustainability. Between 2014 and 2014, they made their boxes 14% smaller. That might not sound like a big change, but it saved more than 7,000 tons of cardboard annually. Lego isn’t stopping there, either. By 2025, they will have eliminated all disposable plastic packaging.
In recent years, movements like the Fight for $15 have put the spotlight on American wages and labor practices. If you’re not offering a living wage or paid parental leave, that’s something you should be taking a look at.
For many companies, it’s also important to consider overseas labor practices. If you’re contracting with a foreign company, they may not meet the standards Americans expect for workers. Starbucks has been taking the lead on this, with their Ethical Sourcing Program. Since 2015, 99% of their coffee has come from farms that meet a set of international standards for pay and working conditions.
So, how can you successfully turn your good work into good business? Here are three examples of companies with effective social impact initiatives.
The Home Depot is staffed by people who know a thing or two about home improvement. Through their Team Depot program, they organize front-line associates to renovate homes for veterans. The program is funded by the Home Depot Foundation. The foundation has spent over $160 million on veterans’ homes from 2011 to the present.
Team Depot and the Home Depot Foundation work well for a couple of reasons. To begin with, Home Depot employees tend to be fairly handy, so they can do the work correctly. Home Depot is also a large, wealthy company, and can donate its own building supplies.
Finally, the program meshes with Home Depot’s customer base. They’re a broad-based company, and just about anyone is a potential customer. Veterans, at the same time, come from virtually every background. They come from all states, colors, faiths, and political inclinations. No matter who you are, you probably know at least a couple of vets. Building homes for them is in line with pretty much everyone’s values, so it’s a good fit for Home Depot.
Sometimes, it’s smart to be uncontroversial. But for other brands, it can pay to take a stand on more controversial issues. For a brand that pulls no punches when it comes to activism, look no further than Ben & Jerry’s and the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.
From labor rights to Black Lives Matter, Ben & Jerry’s has been vocal in their support of progressive causes. The eponymous founders even supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President. This works for Ben & Jerry’s because their customers are mostly younger and more urban. A bold, activist brand is exactly what they want!
When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick found himself unable to land a new contract, many thought he would never work again. The activist athlete had knelt in support of Black Lives Matter, and teams found him too controversial to sign.
Instead, Kaepernick made waves – and a lot of money – as the spokesman for Nike’s 2018 “Just Do It” campaign. The ad was a huge success, boosting Nike’s profile during a time when many in the public are skeptical of large corporations. Like Ben & Jerry’s activism, this worked in large part because it’s in tune with Nike’s customer base.
But just as importantly, the Nike/Colin Kaepernick ad is simple and straightforward. It’s just Kaepernick’s face, with the words: “Belief in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” That’s effective communication, and it’s how relationships are built.
Now more than ever, customers are considering a brand’s stand on social issues when they buy. Companies need to create an effective, authentic social impact marketing campaign in order to reach a savvy audience of potential buyers. The customers appreciate and focus on the brand’s social and environmental impact. This in turn, makes customers happy with your product but also good about themselves since they are supporting organizations that try and make a positive social impact.
About the Author
For over 25 years, Jay Sung has been a passionate leader in driving sustainable growth through direct-to-consumer, e-commerce, and customer acquisition strategies. Mr. Sung oversees corporate branding and growth initiatives utilizing a continuously evolving toolkit of digital marketing strategies and technologies to drive innovative direct marketing programs for portfolio companies – from startups to Fortune 500 organizations.
Previously, Mr. Sung served as the Chief Marketing Officer for Guthy-Renker, a $1.3 billion industry leader in the direct-to-consumer health and beauty market. He is best known for developing consumer acquisition and marketing strategies for leading brands such as Meaningful Beauty® with Cindy Crawford, Wen® Haircare by Chaz Dean, IT Cosmetics™, and many others. In addition, he served as the CEO of such well-known brands as The Proactiv Company and Lot18.
Mr. Sung lives in Los Angeles, enjoying all Southern California has to offer. You’ll frequently find him reading the latest business journal, cooking, or practicing the piano to relax. Mr. Sung earned his Bachelor of Science degree in economics with a double concentration in marketing and accounting from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.