Marketing: Right consumer, right time, right message… and Right (or Left) cause?

The delivery of news content has experienced a paradigm shift that now surpasses the previous pressures of a “24 hour news cycle”; journalistic content now must fill airwaves, radio waves, internet blogs, news feeds, Twitter pages, and other instantaneous delivery system. Instead of the big networks (and their advertisers of products) controlling the message, details and commentary on current events are ubiquitously delivered by laymen and professionals alike. This content-craving environment, competing for your attention each second of the day, creates a ripe opportunity for viral stories that engage readers and ignite a passion in Americans… and marketing professionals have taken notice. The field of marketing has been working to create campaigns that reach their target demographic while becoming part of the current-events conversation and not an interruption to it. In doing so, marketing professionals have moved to ignore the maxim of “never discuss politics and religion” and, instead, fully engage such issues. In associating a business with current social and political events, companies can elevate their brand by becoming part of the relevant societal discussions and may realize potential profits by doing so.

In business, the term “corporate social responsibility” has been in use for over 50 years, as it first became popular in the 1960s, but the socially responsible business lines have been blurred.  More brands are being held accountable for their stance on political and social issues that are pertinent, relevant, and timely to consumers. In response, marketing (and its close sibling public relations) has practiced new restraint in attempting to control the message, as had been done in the past, and instead find opportunities to share in the popular thoughts of their consumers.

For example, this month, Starbuck’s quietly rolled-out their usual holiday brews and festive decor… including a red cup. Using red coffee cups during the holiday season is not new, nor novel, for Starbucks (or any other company for that matter) but, it seemed to have launched a passionate movement; this year’s cups did not have any distinct Christmas-markings on them and consumers wanted to share their opinion on that. It began with a social media post by Joshua Feurstein, expressing that it was an attack on Christian values. What launched was a possible future MBA case study on how a business can become part of the daily water-cooler conversation… without a cent of public relations expenses being spent.

Within a week, it seemed that the conversation amongst American consumers became all about a red cup during holiday season. Celebrities and presidential candidates contributed to the chatter, feeds on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and news media outlets (print, television, and radio) all were covering the story. The free publicity was measurable; Google reported that there were millions of news stories on the “Starbucks red cup controversy.”

Starbucks is a company that is known to engage in social issues, having taken stances on educational opportunities or gun control, and has not seemingly enjoyed a negative effect from past planned boycotts. The red cup controversy also seemed to have threats of boycotts, which may have further fueled their target consumers’ passions for the brand; Starbucks did not ignore the debate and released a statement on it. More importantly, consumers may have forgotten, in their collective memory, what the past Starbucks holiday time cup-designs were, but this years simplistic color will likely be remembered amongst consumers, consciously or subconsciously. Even more timely, as of the writing of this blog, Starbucks home page shows France’s flag alongside the word “Solidarity”; their prime spot for advertising the company or a product is, instead, responding to recent news events.

The marketing stances taken by companies can be very controversial, like this year’s increasing amount of attention focused on equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community; namely regarding marriage equality, gender identity, and diversity in the workplace. Companies have taken notice of this societal acceptance and have not shied away from campaigns that promote messages of diversity and inclusion. Companies do need to make a profit and seemed to have done their research on these stances; the consumers they are targeting seem to want it. Almost half of all young consumers say they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBT-friendly company, (Google Consumer Survey from August of 2014). Of them, more than 54% also say they’d choose an equality-focused brand over a competitor.

Brands like Burger King (BK) (who launched a Whopper specifically to celebrate gay pride) and Honey Maid (with a campaign to show the diversity of the modern family) made their attempts to enter into the conversation on an inclusive society that is accepting of LGBT individuals. With marketing efforts, these companies took a potentially controversial stance on a relevant social issue and, strategically, did so in a way by delivering messages that resonate with certain target populations.

While some of these campaigns are thoroughly planned and carefully executed, not all responses to the efforts will be positive or resonate with everybody; and that directly speaks to the goal of marketing. If a marketing effort creates a space for a brand to be discussed as an activism opportunity (boycott, pickets, etc.), the modern company may not have a public relations problem on their hands, but, instead, an opportunity to respond to negativity and contribute to the cultural dialogue. In fact, Honey Maid did just that after the launch of their campaign, with a video called “Love.”, and has had over 4 million people opt-into watching a video that is, really, a commercial for a brand. Given that Honey Maid took further action, standing by their original stance, it appears that messaging about the wholesomeness of all families resonated with their target customers; one can only presume that the internal company data on sales showed that the marketing effort… and whatever controversy it caused… was translating into sales.

A tale of caution when taking a position; the effect can be unpredictable or a company’s stance may be unpopular with most of their own target consumers. As with gay marriage, there were some businesses that took a public stance and took an opposition stance to acceptance of the non-traditional family, like this Indiana pizza restaurant; soon, they found themselves losing customers, money, and the ability to stay open. Yet, it appeared that the messages with most companies who took a stance on this issue seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the message of acceptance; for example, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream announced it would, for a limited time, rename pints of its chocolate chip cookie dough, calling it “I Dough, I Dough” and many companies added the viral hashtag #LoveWins to their tweet in response to the Supreme Court decision upholding the right to marry for same-sex couples.

Companies that do choose to be part of a social or political stance should be careful to not ruin their brand by having the marketing message seem contrived or too opportunistic on a timely cause. As many saw last year, the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions for the ALS Association and may be categorized as the most successful viral charity drive of all time. When companies decided to become a part of this movement, some responses were tepid or, at worse, cynical of their involvement. After all, in a media environment vying for popular viral attention, some that attempt to force their way into a cause may be viewed as “vultures”; attempting to take advantage of a situation. With the Ice Bucket Challenge, it appears that hundreds of corporate executives participated but none of their videos seemed to have received many views (and therefore, no consumers were passionate to engage with the brand in that way). Some companies did attempt to get creative with their participation in this viral fundraising effort, as the challenge was accepted and completed by the Old Spice GuyRonald McDonald, Santa (on Macy’s behalf)the Energizer Bunny, and a Teddy Graham. None of these seems to have received much attention and, while possibly enjoyed by some, had a questionable impact on their brand associations. In fact, some brand images may have been challenged if their video had questionable reliability, like this one by Marriott. Even Starbucks doesn’t always engage in cultural conversations appropriately, as they had to bring an end to their “Race Together” campaign to discuss racial issues earlier this year.

Whether a marketing campaign strategically plans to associate itself with a social or political cause or becomes associated inadvertently, marketers would be wise to take heed of emerging passions and causes that are important to consumers. Especially in the quickly reactive news (and social media) environment, companies need to promptly explore if any opportunities are intrinsically present that resonate with their ideal demographic. The most effective companies will respond speedily and honestly and will allow the level-headedness of common sense to carry the prevailing conversations. While marketers may need to carefully work with their public relations colleagues to navigate these issues, it could present a strong opportunity for a brand to be associated with positive emotions, passionate consumers in their target demographic, and remembered the next time a dollar will be spent.


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