How Brands can Lead on Social Movements

Throughout 2020, brands have been challenged to maintain their social media presence as audiences invest their attention into major social movements and changes to their way of life. This means marketers have been constantly adjusting well-laid plans for 2020 while finding the right way for their brands to contribute to the conversation around social change.

Over the last few years, our #BrandsGetReal series has highlighted data around what consumers want from brands as they take part in an increasingly complicated online landscape. Consistently, the message has been that audiences seek brands’ participation on social issues.

“Seventy percent of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues, up from 66% in 2017.”

How exactly brands meet this demand without fatiguing audiences or merely engaging in performative “woke-washing” remains an ongoing challenge to marketers, especially as they balance these conversations with planning daily content and working towards existing business goals.

That’s why we’re reviewing the findings of our #BrandsGetReal surveys to help guide your decision making now.

Why do audiences look to brands on social issues?

Just halfway into 2020, everyone–including both social marketers and their audiences–have confronted wide-ranging challenges:

  • Adapting to work and life disruptions caused by COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, including managing new schedules and expectations around work and daily life, balanced with anxieties about a rapidly-changing situation.
  • A new understanding of social movements fueled by support for #BlackLivesMatter: People are continuing to debate and evolve their behavior to move beyond performative, one-time actions and commit to transformative allyship.

Given the complexity and emotional weight of these issues, why should brands weigh in on social media channels traditionally used for marketing? Our data from #BrandsGetReal shows us that audiences actually do want brands to speak out on social issues and use their social feeds as a platform.

Audiences believe brands are well-positioned to bridge the gap across different groups of people and garner wide attention. According to our survey in #BrandsGetReal: What consumers want from brands in a divided society, nearly four in five consumers feel brands can connect people of different backgrounds and beliefs for multiple reasons. These reasons include the fact that brands carry products and services that appeal to a diverse range of customers, and that brands have the resources and presence to receive significant media attention.

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Further, in our 2019 #BrandsGetReal survey, 66% of consumers said they believed brands should weigh in on social issues because they can create real change, while 63% reaffirmed that brands have the platform to reach a large audience.

These consumer beliefs weren’t linked to any specific political affiliation. A majority of consumers from all political affiliations felt that brands should take a stand on social issues.

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Despite the rise of call-out culture in the popular consciousness, participating in social issues can also increase consumer trust in your brand and help you recover from missteps in messaging. In #BrandsGetReal: Social media & the evolution of transparency, we found that nine in 10 consumers are more likely to give brands who are highly transparent second chances after bad experiences, and 85% are more likely to stick with them during crises. Being human and authentic about social issues is one way to build this culture of transparency.

Social media enables brands to lead on important issues

Not only do audiences want brands to speak up about social movements, they see social media as the channel to do so on. In our 2019 #BrandsGetReal data, nearly half of consumers (47%) stated they want brands to take a stand on social media.

According to our 2018 #BrandsGetReal data, audiences view social media as a key way of regularly staying in touch with others, including those with different views or beliefs, and staying informed.

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Taken together with data showing that people look to brands to bridge the gap between those with different views, social media is the ideal platform for brands to use their reach and influence to build connections.

While 55% of consumers wanted brands on social media to help connect them to like-minded people, and 36% were looking for communities to belong to, we also found that over half of conservatives (51%) and liberals (54%) would like to connect with people who are different from them.

Brands should be conscious of the impact of their actions on social media. In our 2019 survey, 41% of consumers said brands’ social posts did influence their opinions on public issues–a 21% increase from the same question in 2017. Brands were effective at encouraging their audiences to research further into issues (61%) and participate in public action, including actions such as donating to causes (55%) and registering to vote (53%).

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How brands can lend their voice to social movements

It’s more important than ever that brands engage with social issues in a way that is meaningful and fits a brand’s specific voice and image.

The era of fake news and increased media literacy means audiences are increasingly conscious of factors like disconnects between messaging posted on brands’ social feeds versus their actual business operations.

Audiences are also more savvy about standard marketing tactics, and with the high volume of discussion around important topics on social media as a whole, quicker to become fatigued with messages that appear to be hollow or performative, without showing a commitment to greater change.

What to consider before your brand weighs in

There are risks to engaging in politicized issues without preparing your message carefully. In on our 2019 #BrandsGetReal data, over half (55%) of consumers said they would boycott a brand whose stance they disagreed with. However, when consumers agreed with a brand’s stance, 37% of consumers say they would recommend the brand to friends and family. Further, 36% percent said they would purchase more from that brand and 29% would publicly praise or promote it.

Marketers risk getting caught up in analysis paralysis over how to balance the potential disconnect between moving prospects through your funnel and remaining reactive to unexpected social issues. Yet recent events have proven out what we’ve seen in the data: audiences don’t want brands to remain silent or neutral during opportunities for social change.

Before you weigh in on social media, make sure your brand is taking the right actions to back your message up. In our 2019 survey, 43% of consumers said brands should speak out when an issue directly impacts their business, and 38% said brands should take a stand when a topic relates to a company’s values.

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Audiences will see through attempts to speak up on issues just to be part of a trending topic. Make sure your actions as an entire company back up what you’re espousing on social. For example, if your brand doesn’t highlight diversity in your marketing to date, or doesn’t have a diverse employee base, weighing in on representation will feel hollow and could easily prompt a backlash.

Rather than avoid the issue or post a generic message, outline steps toward making changes for your brand. Embrace transparency by highlighting some of the internal discussions and challenges your brand is facing.

Finally, be ready to back up any major statements with ongoing efforts. This includes preparing your social team to be aligned on messaging and restate your position throughout ongoing replies and reactions to any stances you take.

Our past data shows that audiences do want brands to respond to social movements with continuing action, including working with nonprofits or through ongoing content and replies. Take stock of your brand voice and evaluate how ready your messaging and your team are to respond to social issues. This can help you navigate unexpected crises and contribute in a way that’s both meaningful to your specific audience and the issue at large.

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Next steps for brands

There’s no doubt the social landscape in 2020 will continue to challenge both marketers and audiences on social media to continually re-evaluate what they’re saying, how they’re saying it and how they’re actually impacting social movements.

Use these stats to help guide your action, and don’t shy away from the significant opportunities social provides to be a leader and help shape the conversation for good. As we’ve seen through multiple years of #BrandsGetReal surveys, social media provides a valuable platform to positively impact social issues, and connect more deeply with audiences, even during ongoing uncertainty.

As your brand navigates this new understanding of social movements, see our recommendations for 5 ways to develop a long term strategy for diversity, equity & inclusion on social media.


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