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Consumers increasingly want companies to address society’s big problems, such as climate change and crumbling infrastructure. And polls suggest more than half say they want to buy from brands that take stands on social issues.
At the same time, consumers are increasingly skeptical about these partnerships, such as corporate sponsorships of LGBTQ Pride Month, and instead see them as marketing stunts rather than acts of genuine activism. This is called “wokewashing.”
I’m a professor of brand responsibility, and my forthcoming research investigates brands and their relationships with social issues, including the importance of both corporate allies and advocates.
Allies or advocates
In marketing terms, allies are members of a dominant social group that bring attention to important social issues.
A company can serve as an ally when it works to increase awareness about issues affecting marginalized groups. Advocates take a more active role, working to change political, economic and social systems.
Companies can be advocates when they create campaigns to promote institutional change and provide financial support for groups engaged in creating social change.
Yoplait’s campaign to address patronizing attitudes toward moms is an example of corporate advocacy. Another is Stella Artois’ partnership with Water.org to end the global water crisis, which has provided clean drinking water to over 2 million people so far.
However, corporate adventures into social issues aren’t always well thought out or received.
For example, consider corporate involvement in annual Pride Month celebrations. In 2019, the number of brands participating in Pride reached an all-time high. Brands including T-Mobile, Alaska Airlines and MasterCard featured supportive messages and announced donations to support the queer community.
Some don’t welcome large-brand sponsorships to Pride, arguing that sponsorships take the focus away from issues of LGBTQ marginalization. These brands are not seen as authentic advocates, as they were not contributing directly to LGBTQ causes but instead portrayed as paying for exposure.
These critics argue that brands don’t really care about the community, pointing to a lack of supportive messages throughout the rest of the year.
There are also concerns from members of the community that brands support Pride while taking political stances that harm the LGBTQ community. For example, Equinox and SoulCycle, which have sponsored Pride, faced a consumer boycott in August 2019 after the chairman of their parent company said he was hosting a fundraiser for then-President Donald Trump, who advocates say is anti-LGBTQ.
Some companies may use causes to pander to consumers and deserve to be called out, but my research shows that corporate allies and advocates can have an important role in society.
Engagement through both allyship and advocacy continue to be important to keep issues in the spotlight to effect significant social change.
I’m finding in my research that brands’ connecting with social issues can be a win-win: Consumers become aware of important social issues that may lack media exposure, and brands connect with like-minded consumers in a more authentic way.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Aug. 19, 2019.
—By Kim Sheehan, School of Journalism and Communication