To learn about this and other topics from nonprofit organization insights leaders, attend What You Didn’t Know About MR in Associations and Nonprofits at CRC, October 22-24 in Orlando.

As Millennial and Gen Z buyers continue to demand additional transparency and social responsibility, brands feel the pressure to act out and communicate social and political stances on behalf of their customers/constituents. This type of responsibility is old hat for organizations like the IIA and the NRA who represent the Internal Audit profession and gun owners, respectively. They carefully consider how to define and serve their topic and their people. On the other hand, when a clothing or food brand chooses its position on a current polarizing issue, the degree to which its stance and image resonates with the core beliefs and behaviors of its intended customer community impacts the resulting loyalty, emotive connection, buying preference, etc. of this group. This brings on a whole new set of risks for marketing and marketing research leaders, ranging from the more obvious misses, such as selecting a particularly offensive stance that alienates the core customer group, to misaligning corporate communications and behaviors.

Corporate Activism and the Consumer

It has become more important than ever to consider how your organization deals with activism or advocacy with a customer base highly conscientious about where they’re spending their money. Consumers today want more than just a good product or a low price – they want to know that the companies they’re giving their hard-earned money to are doing good in some way. A rare handful of companies have made a point of clarifying their approaches to ‘doing good’ to their employees and the public.

With a recent Nielsen study showing percentages greater than 50% across the board – and some areas as high as 90% – of respondents who are very concerned about environmental issues, it’s clear that companies need to consider how they are contributing to the causes that are important to their customer base. In fact, 81% of respondents felt strongly that companies should be helping to improve the environment, according to Nielsen. This is just one example of philanthropic causes in which companies are expected to be involved, however. Many other forms of corporate activism are growing in strength, and if your company isn’t jumping on board, you might be left behind.

One needs only look at companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, and Apple to see prime examples of corporate social activism. CEOs like Tim Cook of Apple and Howard Schultz of Starbucks are speaking out for the causes in which they believe, including commentary that affects public views on legislation and public/police relations. Ben & Jerry’s goes so far as to have a “Corporate Activism Manager” position to manage its many different activism campaigns.

The Danger of Uninformed Corporate Activism

The world of corporate activism/advocacy can be a complicated area to play in, so it’s best to do your research beforehand. Two of the most common problems that can arise from entering into the activism space are 1) ostracizing a part of your customer base that disagrees with your stance and 2) inciting backlash if your stance doesn’t align well with your company.

Gillette’s “Be a Better Man” campaign demonstrates a real-life example of these problems coming to a head. In its campaign against “toxic masculinity”, Gilette risked turning off a portion of its customer base, while also angering those who believed it was merely capitalizing on an important cause (the #MeToo movement). This led to calls for a boycott of the brand.

Another prime example of activism/advocacy going awry is the now infamous Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The tone-deaf ad caused a massive outcry for appearing to trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement by insinuating that sharing a can of soda is all it takes to calm everyone down and create peace. When Pepsi pulled the ad, the company released a statement saying it had clearly “missed the mark” and “did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” but the commercial lives on in infamy as an example of the dangers of playing in the turbulent social advocacy space.

Learning from the Experts

In contrast, some companies involved in corporate activism have made the smart move of partnering with nonprofits expert in specific areas. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, partnered with 350.org, a climate change nonprofit, on its campaign for renewable electricity leading up to the Paris climate conference.

Public activism is something that many associations and nonprofits do all the time. These organizations (and the researchers who work with them) have proven to be invaluable assets to companies seeking to make their mark in specialized, nuanced advocacy markets.

They do this with longstanding, trusted interactions with living, breathing communities rather than mere transactional relationships with customers or supporters. The relationship is vastly different when you start looking at your customers/supporters as constituents, factoring their loyalty to your organization into the decisions you make. This is unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable for companies that haven’t done this before – the idea that you’re both beholden to each other to accomplish these goals. A closer bond forms when you’re trying to promote what your community wants, not just what is good for your organization. The right tools, techniques, and approaches can be learned from associations long accepted in the community and well-versed in a non-transactional relationship.

Corporate activism is on the rise, and the general trend sees consumers shifting toward companies that "do good". Companies seeking to benefit from this movement now and in the future would be wise to learn from NPOs and associations who have long walked the walk and developed loyal relationships with their customers.

Join the discussion about this and other topics at CRC, October 22-24 in Orlando