Cause marketing for brands has shifted in today’s social media landscape. I believe a large part of this has been driven by social media platforms and the opportunity for a more visible conversation. It used to be that a brand would pick a charitable cause to support or add a pink ribbon to their packaging for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I’m not sure Burger King’s recent “Unhappy Meals” launch tied into Mental Health Month could have worked if put out in a vacuum. It certainly received some criticism, particularly for including a shot at their biggest competitor, but it was quickly supported by mental health advocates and those dealing with mental health challenges of their own. Initial online criticism was quickly met with support by people invested in the issue.

There is a natural instinct for the “Twitter mob” to pounce on brands challenging their sincerity. This isn’t new however. I recall passing an event raising awareness for juvenile diabetes sponsored by a large beverage company popular for its sugary soda. A friend made a sarcastic comment to me as we passed by the stage, but this was BT (Before Twitter) and it ended there. He didn’t have the opportunity to pull out his phone and post his critique for others to pile on and lambast the brand.

When Netflix released 13 Reasons Why, it was received with mixed reactions. Some praised them for putting a spotlight on the issue of teen suicide, while others feared “suicide contagion” when attention to the issue leads others already contemplating it to act. A recent study indicating a rise in teen suicide since the show was released was quickly pointed to as proof, though experts have stated it is difficult to prove causation.

Netflix did work with a suicide prevention expert before launch of the series, but in the end did not take his advice to not air the show. Now they are mostly on their own in defending the decision.  

So what is a brand to do? There are three key steps when considering connecting your brand to a social cause.

To thine own self be true

This starts with a deep understanding of your brand, its values and its purpose. Pick a cause that is relevant to your brand. I thought Green Giant’s anti-bullying campaign was inspired when it launched in 2013. They have always focused on families with children, and cyber-bullying was a growing concern. It’s “Raise a Giant” campaign was a welcome entrant to the cause.

Do your homework

Last year I wrote about one campaign that failed to do this. The more sensitive the issue, the more deeply you must understand it and how it impacts your customers. Speaking to people affected by the issue and advocacy groups are a must. A survey can inform your strategy, but cannot be its foundation.

Solicit advocates

Burger King worked with Mental Health America on this campaign. It certainly helped them avoid tone-deaf missteps, but also offered credible endorsers when people challenged BK’s campaign as capitalizing on a hot button issue. Aligning with individuals and groups to both develop and launch your campaign will not only improve success, but also provide a firewall to shield your brand from backlash.

Consumers have shown a preference for brands that align with their values. Supporting a social cause they care about and reflects your brand values, can strengthen connections. In today’s world of communications where opinions travel at the speed of light and one misconstrued step can cause you to trend in a way you weren’t intending, you must make sure you approach it thoughtfully and sincerely.

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