However, their lack of experience and expertise in understanding the deep social issues – and how the target audience is decoding their carefully coded woke message – can turn a campaign that, on paper, seems to portray a meaningful and compassionate image, into a short-lived, backlash-generating public relations disaster for the brand.
With many consumers questioning the true motivations of brands becoming social justice warriors, accusing them of corrupt, profit-oriented motivations and inauthentic virtue signalling, it is crucial to understand the factors contributing to lack of perceived authenticity in social impact communications.
Tackling sensitive social issues may seem to contradict the ultimate goal of commercial brands: profit-seeking. This contradiction between the perceived commercial purpose of a brand (profit seeking), and communicating and signalling social purpose values, has been a significant obstacle blocking society’s acceptance of brands’ engagement with social issues.
Despite brands’ involvement in daily life, consumers seem not to welcome what brands have to offer when it comes to sensitive issues. This can be a major lost opportunity for both parties. Brands have power. Their financial support, product development, communication and public awareness, audience reach, and employment practices can make them impactful agents of change. Dismissing brands’ efforts can cause consumers to miss out on such change. And brands can miss out on the chance to develop a long-term relationship with their target audience.
The authenticity triangle
There’s no point trying to argue that for-profit businesses aren’t primarily concerned with making a profit. But that doesn’t automatically rule out such businesses being authentically woke.
To many, a commercial brand is an entity with profit-seeking motivations that is searching for the next growth solution, the next strategy to increase market share, the next tactic to extend consumer lifetime value and the next plan to guarantee long-term survival. That commercial reality has not changed, it’s not going to change, and no one should expect it to change. Any business not concerned with generating revenue and profits won’t last long. Rather than focusing solely on the motives of businesses, however, we should examine the authenticity of what they claim they do or promise to do.
Three simple factors can make a major contribution towards consumers perceiving brands as authentic or optimistic in their engagement with social problems.
Perhaps the single most important factor that contributes to authentic and genuine perceptions is a familiar refrain – ‘walk the talk’. In other words, the extent to which a brand is committed to delivering what it promises is a major factor in whether it is perceived as authentic.
Over time, different social movements, issues, and events become major points for acknowledging the challenges of disadvantaged, underrepresented and discriminated groups and communities. Brands should use such events to highlight their practices addressing such social issues.
If the brand has a history of engaging in higher-purpose moves, and if the brand is known for championing social and political issues, it may be perceived as authentic by the brand public. Brands that don’t have any history of being purposeful before abruptly getting involved in celebrating trendy festivities, like the Pride month, may confuse the brand public. Having a pre-existing relevant history and positioning can facilitate the brand public’s understanding and decoding of authenticity.
The degree of alignment between the brand’s core business, its image and positioning, and any social or environmental issue it embraces can influence its perceived authenticity. Any misalignment may risk backlash and potential boycotting, whereas a high degree of alignment is likely to increase perceptions of authenticity. To be perceived as authentic, an organisation’s social responsibility program should be strongly associated with its core values and culture.
Ideally, brands should find relevant and well-aligned topics that can resonate with their target audience. Social impact moves should be seen as a brand extension. But instead of extending your brand offerings into new categories, you’re extending your positioning and brand image.