Republicans Buy Sneakers, Too: Why Socially Conscious Advertising is In

For a long time, most companies shied away from mixing business with social issues.

Even athletes like Michael Jordan, as much a walking, talking brand as any person alive, drew a hard line at expressing any type of controversial opinion.

In 1990, the state of North Carolina was divided by a heated Senate race between two polarizing candidates. On one side stood Sen. Jesse Helms, who once called the 1964 Civil Rights Act the “single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”

On the other stood Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte who promised to work for the voters, not play on their worst fears.

With the race deadlocked, Gantt’s campaign reached out to Jordan – native son and local hero – for an endorsement. The NBA superstar declined. He wasn’t into politics, he claimed, and didn’t know the issues. Privately, he told a friend, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Months later, Helms narrowly won re-election.

Brands are getting bolder

Twenty-eight years ago, Jordan’s reluctance to get involved wasn’t all that unusual among star athletes and brands alike. Most companies walled off their products and services from the world around them, content to let the debates play out elsewhere.

Commerce, not conscience, was the operative word.

Today, brands are finding that the number of values-based consumers is on the rise, especially among millennials. According to a recent Forrester report, nearly seven in 10 millennials consider a company’s values when making a purchase — nearly 40% higher than the adult population as a whole.

Most of these consumers are not looking for companies to endorse a political candidate or ballot measure. Instead, they want them to declare – and act on – corporate values. Whether it’s promoting inclusivity, pushing back against traditional gender roles or making a commitment to environmental responsibility, people what to know what matters to their favorite brands.

What does values-based marketing look like?

The challenge for marketing teams is figuring out when, where and how to promote their brand’s corporate values.

After seeing villages full of barefoot children in Argentina, founder Blake Mycoskie returned to the United States and built his company on a simple but powerful idea: if you buy a pair of TOMS, you help someone in need. To date, the company has sold more than 75 million pairs of shoes.

Other companies have enjoyed success by re-positioning their brand to appear more authentic or inclusive. Whether it’s American Eagle exclusively using unairbrushed models in its Aerie ads or Louboutin expanding its line of nude shoes to include additional skin shades, companies are finding ways to make more of their customers feel like a reflection of the brand.

Some brands have even used values-based marketing to connect with specific customer segments. In 2017, Yoplait launched a campaign that showed new mothers addressing common criticisms, from breastfeeding in public to returning to work.

Did it have much to do with yogurt? Not really. But it positioned Yoplait as a modern, progressive company and engendered a lot of goodwill among a key demographic. According to analysis from Google, the campaign resulted in a 1,461% increase in brand interest.

How can my brand get started?

Aligning with a social cause is popular right now, but it still has to make sense for your brand and track with your public and private efforts. The following questions can help you determine whether your brand will benefit from a values-based marketing campaign:

1. Does it track with your brand’s values and core offering?

Like good chemistry or the splits, values-based marketing is not something that should be forced.

If you want to incorporate values-based marketing into your outreach, be sure to pick a cause that makes sense. Hitching your wagon to the cause du jour will make you look mercenary and could negatively impact your brand.

2. Does it make sense for your target demographic(s)?

While millennials are most likely to be influenced by values-based marketing, other generations are also paying attention. In 2017, more than half of Gen X consumers (ages 44 to 53) said they consider a company’s values when making a purchase.

Base: 5,005 to 5,396 U.S. online adults (18+)
Source: Forrester Analytics Consumer Technographics’ North American Omnibus Surveys, 2015 and 2017

The younger your target demographic, the more you should incorporate values into your marketing.

3. Be transparent and tangible

Between the number of internet watchdogs and the ease with which information can spread, saying your brand is committed to a cause isn’t enough. You need to be able to show tangible proof, whether it’s corporate policy, charitable donations or a specific program.

Where is values-based marketing headed?

If the last few years are any indication, values-based marketing isn’t going anywhere. In fact, as millennial (and younger) shoppers gain purchasing power and take on a larger market share, the need for brands to connect on a socially adept, customer-centric level will continue to increase.

According to Forbes, people 23 and younger already account for $143B in annual spending, not counting the influence they have on household spending. By 2020, they are on track to become the largest generation of consumers in history.

Friendly bit of advice for marketers everywhere — get ready for Gen Z.