Leslie Sabatinelli is a forest manager in Georgia. She cares about the trees and how to preserve them. She also believes in fair systems and as such has become a staunch supporter of brands that promote racial equality, climate control and fair employment practices. In fact, even her spice purchases are influenced by what a brand ultimately stands for.
“Essentially, when I can, I put my money where my mouth is,” says Sabatinelli, 40, of Watkinsville. “For a company to take a stand on these controversial issues is bold and can lead to changes in sales, so by buying their products, I’m supporting that bold stand.”
Sabatinelli represents the portion of consumers who are acutely aware of the politics of their favorite brands and who align their spending dollars to work with brands that represent what they support or believe in. That’s partially why she buys Penzeys Spices, a brand known for its premiere spices and also for its liberal CEO.
Bill Penzey unleashed a political firestorm last December – and increased his profits – when he sent an email to customers chastising the “open embrace of racism” in the United States. Plenty of people rallied against Bill Penzey, but plenty of people rallied for him as well, resulting in a 138% increase in sales, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal.
Penzeys isn’t the only company being quite public about taking a social stand. Chobani sells yogurt and also openly tells its corporate story of 100% paid parental leave practices. And instead of solely talking about hiring more women, the CEO of ad agency FCB instituted a “two-pronged approach” to help his company balance out the gender imbalance endemic to senior management in many corporate environments. Ben and Jerry’s has several pages on their site dedicated to what they describe as “issues we care about,” everything from Black Lives Matter to their thoughts on GMO labeling.
“We are in a world where everything works and everything is of reasonably good quality, so now, how you differentiate yourself is to telegraph what you stand for,” says Oscar Yuan, a branding expert with Ipsos and president of its Strategy3. “Owning a certain product can say something about you. Automobiles were the first brands to do that. Now it’s the phone you have, the coffee you drink, the clothes you wear, the yogurt you eat. All those things are saying something.”
The How and The Why
Companies that work for social good reap profits and Millennials in particular show up and show out for them. In fact, an Ipsos study recently found that 61% of Americans prefer brands that, by purchasing, help them “make a difference in the world.” And, 85% of Americans believe that it is possible for a brand to support a good cause and make money at the same time.
Brands for social good also get media ink – both consumer and B2B – because consumers find the topic enthralling. Gender equity and parental leave policy news seems to be increasingly in the news.
FCB, for example, has made worldwide headlines for its transparency on its path to gender equality. CEO Carter Murray, 42, has taken an approach that includes rebalancing management teams, hosting implicit bias workshops, and actually acting when people from diverse backgrounds make suggestions.
“There is a pressure on me to deliver meaningful change,” says Murray. “We now have 40 percent of women in management positions around the world, making us one of the leading holding groups in terms of gender equality. For FCB this is not a quota-filling exercise, but has allowed us to re-imagine our corporate leadership.”
Chobani, by comparison, offers a generous paid time off parental leave for mothers and fathers, which is one of the reasons why L.A.-based writer Nicole Spector prefers that brand. Spector tries to spend frugally but also is concerned about “toxic snobbery” that makes it tough for lower income people to find and afford less toxic products.
Spector, who once tried to make her own dish soap, now buys Method products because they list all their ingredients and they don’t use palm oil. That’s important because the harvesting of palm oil has devastated the orangutan population.
“I’m pretty devastated by the problems human greed for palm oil have created, particularly as it affects orangutans,” says Spector. “There are hardly any left, and theirs was/is not a gentle death. As much as I want anything else in this life: I don’t want them to go, and if they do, I want to be as little part of the reason as possible.”
The ups and downs of taking a stand
Some brands stay away from the overtly political and yet still make a stand on other issues. In today’s hyper-partisan climate, one where U.S. President Donald Trump has been known to call out brands and executives by name, it can be hard to know when a marketer is going to get caught up in the fray. Disney, for example, “has never wavered in their ability to stand for good wholesome family entertainment and they’ve done that extremely well,” says Yuan, who adds Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue and Bud Light to the list of brands that are very clear about what they stand for.
Increasingly, brands might not be able to sit silently by the wayside. The consumers certainly aren’t.
“If you love Chunky Monkey and are anti-gay rights you make that call,” Yuan says. “All of that is tied together increasingly because there’s so much choice. You go to the store and think ‘oh my god there’s 85 kinds of yogurt!’ so people switch easily between brands and will try Chobani today and Dannon tomorrow. The challenge now is to get people to stick with you, to get a deeper connection beyond the fact that you’re a yogurt.”
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