4 Ways to Blend Business Aims and Social Activism


Written by Caroline Goggin


In the past, there has been a heated ‘profit vs. purpose’ debate in the business world, with some arguing that a company’s only obligation is to maximize profit for their shareholders and everything else be damned. Yet, for years, businesses like Method and Toms have proved it is possible to turn a large profit while also committing to sustainability or incorporating charity into their business model. This is not a marketing fad. It is reflective of a shift in consumer habits that will continue to grow in strength, especially as millennials and Gen Z reach peak purchasing power: over 80% of millennials and Gen Z believe companies should measure success by more than just financial performance, and choose to spend money at, and work for, companies that do.

This shift has been happening for years, but the blending of social activism and business – and consumers’ expectation for how corporations should act – has supercharged since Trump took office. Brands used to be hesitant to take a stance on social or political issues for fear of isolating consumers. Now, businesses that stay silent risk losing customers and the haunt of lingering negative publicity.

Big companies are finally beginning to catch on. The new ventures that will be successful navigating the social enterprise era and engaging millennials for sales and long-term loyalty, are those that are intentional about social missions from the beginning.

Some companies have been proactive and vocal in the face of legislation that opposes their ethics. When President Trump announced his intention to remove protections on land around two national monuments in Utah, Patagonia responded in force. The company released a statement condemning the move, changed its landing page to all black with the words ‘The President Stole Your Land’ and filed a lawsuit to block the cuts. Many applauded Patagonia’s swift action and responded with actions of their own: purchases of Patagonia gear. In just 1 day following Patagonia’s website change, online sales jumped 6x higher than a typical day. Sales remained strong throughout the week, closing 7% stronger than the previous week -- which included Cyber Monday. Patagonia proved that incorporating ethics and politics into business can result in huge profit payoffs.

Some companies take a more subtle approach: choosing to leverage the size of their businesses to better society, rather than waiting around for legislators to take action. Starbucks has a history of focusing on sustainability, including ethically-sourced coffee, and recently announced that it would eliminate plastic straws from all 28,000 global stores by 2020. This change is expected to reduce use by more than 1 billion plastic straws per year, a significant step in reducing the amount of plastic that could end up in the oceans.

Other companies are forced to take a defensive stance, recognizing that in such a polarized and tumultuous time, brands can get called out on Twitter and pulled into a controversy overnight. After the Parkland, FL school shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would no longer sell assault-style guns in its stores. Walmart, LL Bean and Kroger raised the minimum age for purchasing guns to 21. “We don’t want to be part of this story any longer,” Dick’s CEO Edward Stack told CNN at the time.

So how can new brands build with this mindset from the start?

1)    Choose a cause that is genuine, and makes sense for your brand.

Patagonia’s decision to take a stand against Trump’s shrinking of national monuments was not random, nor was it hollow. Patagonia has a long history of environmental activism; since 1985, the brand has donated 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of nature. Taking action around the federal protection of land use wasn’t just about ethics: this issue directly impacts their customers’ lives. Patagonia sells outdoor clothing and gear to consumers who are avid climbers, cyclists, skiers, etc who want nature to remain pristine so they can actually go outside and enjoy it.

2)   Recognize that a social mission does not always have to be about ‘buy-one-give-one.’

Toms Shoes made the ‘buy one, give one’ model ubiquitous and the rise of millennial-led social enterprise startups can make it seem like every new consumer brand now has a ‘give back’ component. But socially conscious business extends far beyond giving products back to underserved communities. Beautycounter rallied its direct sales consultants to lobby on Capitol Hill for stricter cosmetic safety laws. Eone uses its timepiece design to start conversations around perceptions of disabilities in this country. A true commitment to sustainability, diversity, or long-term advocacy that resonates with consumers will contribute to engagement and brand loyalty.

3)    Communicate your narrative in a way that is sincere and authentic.

Regardless of how passionately a brand is committed to a cause, if it’s not communicated sincerely and authentically, its intentions can fall flat. Or, worse, be perceived as an opportunistic marketing stunt (we all remember the Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad). It’s crucial to remember that effective brand storytelling needs to make sense, be both pervasive and consistent, and is built over time: it is about so much more than one press placement or one social media ad campaign. Before you pitch investors, launch a website, or speak to the press, make sure you have real strategy around the key points you are trying to make and how your brand fits into a larger story about what is happening in your country or the world.

4)    Be prepared for an opportunity of galvanization.

Right now, people are searching for ways to be involved and support the causes they believe in. Moments of tragedy or controversial legislative moves can galvanize people in an instant. Brands that keep an eye out for breaking news somehow related to their missions or the work that they’re doing, can capitalize on these moments to rally their communities. When done well, this can turn into an overnight guerilla marketing campaign. Be prepared to give citizens and consumers an immediate and tangible way to take action, and empower them to urge their networks to do the same.

Caroline Goggin is the founder of Upcause Public Relations, a consulting agency that advises brands at the intersection of consumer interest and social impact. Upcause PR manages brands’ public perceptions first and foremost with a focus on smart communications framework: constructing compelling and genuine narratives around an organization’s work, and establishing both offensive and defensive messaging strategies that prepare for breaking news cycles in today’s tumultuous political climate. Combining her expertise in brand communications and media relations, Caroline weaves complex stories about today’s most pressing social issues into national conversations about lifestyle and business to engage mainstream consumer audiences.