Brand partnerships as agents of change

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Being more than a company

How to become an agent of change

By Alexandrine Lapointe

According to a recent study on cause-brand associations and consumer attitudes conducted by the Indian Journal of Commerce & Management Studies, a brand that partners with a cause has a positive impact on consumer perceptions and purchase intent.

However, consumers aren’t so keen on the rising trend of brands that use such partnerships primarily as a marketing vehicle: the famous “washing” effect.

This indicates that the actions taken by a brand when it gets involved with a cause are key. Success lies in managing perceptions.Is the brand being altruistic of self-serving?

The study also found that campaign characteristics, like the type of donation, the amount given and the longevity of the association all had a direct impact on consumer attitudes.

How can a company become an agent of change?

A cause-brand association has many benefits. It can have a real impact on brand image and awareness. It can also give a brand a competitive advantage and generate more sales as a result. In the case of a philanthropic sponsorship, it can also result in tax benefits or even in access to materials and services.

We know that brands that act altruistically generate positive outcomes, so looking at a company’s practices is a good place to start. For many, the transparency of a company is a good reflection of their values, and is even more important today given the growing popularity the conscious consumer.

Transparency can take many shapes. Brands can disclose the progress made throughout their sustainable journey or even share the financial details of investments made throughout the year. Actions like these are a guarantee of trust for consumers.

Companies also need to stay true to their values and be consistent throughout their partnerships. A single grand gesture won’t change consumer perceptions if the brand doesn’t walk the walk. For example, a big donation to a non-profit organization needs to be followed by concrete actions, like an awareness-raising campaign that rallies people around the cause, a change in the company’s regulations or behaviours (if appropriate) or the taking of a firm stance that positions the company as more than just a supporter.

Other examples of concrete actions would be to create a fundraiser in partnership with a cause, to partner up with an organization that you believe in by becoming a philanthropic sponsor, or to create a campaign in relation to the issue/cause, as we saw with Absolut Vodka.

It’s a combination of actions that will help a company to become an active agent of change and lead to a positive perception of the motives behind a cause-brand association.

Cases

Levi’s engaging in the climate crisis

In 2019, Levi’s signed a $2.3 million partnership agreement to join the IFC’s Global Trade Supplier Finance (GTSF) program and IFC’s Partnership for Cleaner Textiles (PaCT) program. The programs were put in place to encourage suppliers to improve their environmental and social impact and reduce their water and energy consumption. To do that, IFC is offering short-term financing with low interest rates to the program members and providing experts to help in the development of new sustainable strategies. Their partnership aims to help Levi’s reach its carbon footprint reduction targets.

The famous denim company has pledged to use only sustainable cotton and renewable energy by 2025 and to reduce the carbon emissions from their supply chain by 40% by 2030.

The case of Levi’s is a good example of a company that’s being transparent. Directly on their website, you can access the details of their partnerships and the progress they’ve made on each of their commitments, like their 2020 goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals.

 

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Absolut Vodka: acting for good

In the case of the climate crisis, another example of what companies can do is to make sure their production is as sustainable as possible. From their inception, Absolut Vodka committed to source all raw ingredients from within a 100 km radius, which reduces emissions generated from transport. In addition, since 60% of vodka is composed of water, they use their own water supply from their local well. As well as being more sustainable, this serves as a guaranty of quality. Their bottles, also produced close to their factory, are composed of at least 40% recycled glass.

Absolut Vodka doesn’t only aim to be a sustainable company. They also create awareness about other issues like consent. In 2020, they partnered up with the anti-sexual violence network RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to create the campaign #SexResponsibly in support to the #MeToo movement. Ann Mukherjee, CEO of Pernod Ricard USA, said that with this campaign, they wanted to start a dialogue on what it really means to drink responsibly. Since alcohol has frequently been trigger in sexual assaults, they felt the need to create awareness around the issue. As part of their campaign, for every repost of the ads they donated a dollar to the anti-sexual violence network, RAINN.

Absolut Vodka also supported the Pride movement with the creation of a bottle design representing the rainbow flag. They’ve also donated more than $40 million to LGBTQ+ centres including Outserve, Outfest, and God’s Love We Deliver. These donations complemented the campaign already in place and lent credibility to their actions.

Over the years, Absolut Vodka has supported many causes. In their #ANightForChange campaign, they collaborated with local artists from around the globe to promote freedom of expression and shed light on local communities.

Their involvement in each partnership is far more than the offer of financial support. They collaborate with causes and non-profit organizations to create awareness and have a real impact, all of which shows a consistency in their actions.

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Patagonia: more than a good brand image

As a company, you don’t necessarily have to pick a single cause. You can also act as an activist and be an actor in social and environmental justice. Patagonia is a great example of what an activist company looks like.

In its fight for social and environmental justice, the brand will take a clear position on a given issue, circulate petitions, organize events, donate to local causes and more. Recently, they positioned themselves as an antiracist company and followed up with a letter they wrote in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the 2020 American election, they also created a tag on their Road to Regenerative Stand Up Shorts that read, “Vote the assholes out”: a dig at all of the politicians who deny the existence of climate change. This led to a spike in traffic to their website where they promote the issue and where people can learn about many other social and environmental injustices happening around the globe.

They are also charging themselves a 1% for the Planet tax, which they give back to environmental non-profits. Since 1985, they have donated more than $89 million to the environmental cause through this tax.

Patagonia is clearly a brand that is consistent in both word and deed. They take a stance on social issues, participate in awareness-raising initiatives and fund a lot of the causes they believe in.

When companies behave in this way and really believe in what they do, consumers will follow. All they want is to trust that a brand cares and is committed to being an agent of change—and not an opportunist. A company doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to put an honest effort into their cause-brand partnership, and be transparent across the board.

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