Norman Guadagno / July 2, 2015

Rainbow Connection: Should Your Brand Jump for Social Change?

Originally published in AdWeek

Marketers have undoubtedly been working overtime lately to keep their brands on the pulse of social change. Sweeping legislative changes, triumphant social justice causes, and tweeted celebrity swagger have all swelled together into a heady mixture of trends and opportunities for companies. But should your brand respond to every hot topic trending across the landscape?

Or, more succinctly, should you have turned your logo into a rainbow?

The pace of social change certainly seems to be accelerating, with information and attitudes about culturally significant events spreading instantly across the Internet. At seemingly every turn, large groups of consumers―many of whom are probably consumers of your brand―are lining up behind big causes. Large-scale changes that used to take decades now can happen in just a few years (and, if Taylor Swift gets involved, change can happen in a few hours).

While big brands certainly have both the means and the need to stay on top of these evocative current events and be responsive to the market, every brand―large or small―needs to have strategies in place to do three things related to social change: 

1. Establish your positions
2. Monitor the environment.
3. Decide if and when to act.

Establish your positions on the issues early and ensure that they align with your core brand values and your customers. For some brands, the alignment between what they offer and key social issues is clear. For most brands, however, the decision to support one issue over another often emerges from deep internal discussion and consideration of core values. For example, media brands usually serve consumers on both sides of any issue equally – Do they risk alienating one side at the expense of another?

Once you have established your position, monitor the environment for signals of real change. Most events don’t tend to be as loud and clear as, say, a Supreme Court ruling, and it’s important to gain clarity into what’s happening to be sure of avoiding surprises. You want to ensure that you know the full story behind any issue before putting your own brand into the dialog. Social listening is a powerful tool for doing this monitoring, but don’t forget the importance of monitoring mainstream media and having a dialog directly with your customers.

Finally, decide if and when to act. Finding the right balance between jumping in fast and waiting too long can be difficult, but you want to be true to your brand and your customers. If you have built a reputation for being a trailblazer, then jump in. (And if you’re Skittles or The Oatmeal and your logo has been a rainbow for years, go ahead and play the trailblazer card.) For most brands, coming in once a consensus begins to emerge usually works best. Remember: Consumer sentiment can change quickly, and you don’t want to have jumped in before the dust has settled.

If you make the decision to activate your brand around a social change issue, remember that it is usually just one small component of your overall brand voice. Most brands want to be part of the larger social discussion, but they rarely allow themselves to have a dominant voice. Find the volume that is appropriate and stick to that level.

Remember, too, that today’s marketplace has an unfortunate appetite for brand mistakes, often pillorying a company or an individual instantly for any misstep. Given this tendency, it is imperative for every brand to have a strategy in place to both act and to react. Don’t stop monitoring once you have decided to plunge into the currents of social change, because those currents are fast and require constant vigilance. Ongoing listening, coupled with real cultural and social sensitivity, is required to keep your brand relevant in today’s fast-changing world. And if your brand believes that we’re all different but that together we’re beautiful, then go ahead and let those rainbow colors fly.