It’s that time of year again when everything from football players to local fire trucks are draped in pink in support of Breast Cancer awareness. It’s becoming more and more common for brands to align behind a cause, to the point where it is almost expected by consumers.

Why is this happening? Today’s political climate may have consumers yearning for brands to provide something humane and compassionate to rally behind. Or it could be the power of the more socially conscious younger generations that is affecting the change. Whatever the reason, it’s apparent that many brands are looking to add “heart” to the center of their brand identity.

But does it always work?

Take, for example, Dodge Ram’s 2018 Super Bowl commercial showing various scenes of people providing service and helping others‑a social worker assisting the needy, an animal rescue scene, an older sister helping a brother with a shirt, all accompanied by a voiceover of a Martin Luther King sermon extolling the virtue of service and generosity towards others. The sentiment missed its mark and Ram faced a backlash. “How can you take a deceased man’s words and use it to project American capitalism, which is everything he stood against,” wrote one Twitter user. Rather than promising service and community, the truck maker was accused of using the words of Martin Luther King simply to sell more trucks.

Linking to feelings

In today’s market, you can depend on data to explore customers’ actions and behaviors. However, if you want to understand their motivations or feelings when they take those actions, you need a different approach. You have to ask.

Travel back to June, and instead of seeing pink you couldn’t walk a city block without seeing a rainbow in support of the LGBTQ community for Pride Month. We couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden display of a rainbow flag was achieving what brands hoped. So we asked 1,500 U.S. consumers how they felt about LGBTQ in advertising, whether brands were doing an appropriate job representing LGBTQ and how this impacted their purchasing decisions. We were particularly interested in LGBTQ as a social issue given it is one that not all consumers are aligned to.

What we found was that many consumers appreciate the message of inclusiveness and embrace brands that support the LGBTQ community. Nearly half (49 percent) of our sample felt brands have a responsibility to advocate for the LGBTQ community. Moreover, when we showed them an LGBTQ ad, 39 percent felt more positive about the brand, 42 percent were neutral, and just a minority (19 percent) reported feeling more negative about the brand. One-third of consumers even went so far as to say an LGBTQ-friendly brand has a positive impact on their purchase decision. Conversely, one in four reported dissatisfaction with media portrayal of the LGBTQ community.

Getting to the nuance

Those numbers provide the big picture, but it was through the qualitative elements, where we asked why consumers felt the way they did, that we learned the most.

For example, for those that are dissatisfied with LGBTQ portrayal, the reason wasn’t solely because of personal bias. Rather some respondents did not like stereotypes and sensationalized portrayals such as “Gay men are always more flamboyant” or “Lesbians are always manly.” They demanded authenticity, “They show very good looking and charming same-sex couples having the time of their lives and mixing with their friends. It’s not the most realistic ….try to treat them like normal human beings like everyone else and don’t try too hard to make a statement.”

It’s all about authenticity. Brands simply can’t wave a rainbow flag once a year or play lip service to a cause; they have to be all in.

Coca-Cola is a good example of being all-in. Having used polar bears since 1922 as part of their brand identity, a couple of years ago they went all-in by supporting the World Wildlife Foundation in its goal to raise $10 million to ensure the polar bear’s future. Similarly, Dove has become the symbol of the movement for women to accept and love themselves.

As one of the respondents to our survey said: “[Brands need to] stand behind what they say. Running an ad campaign using a same-sex couple is great but if the brand is going to do that, why not endorse it publicly. Make a statement. Support rallies and rights of individuals in court and in the community. If they really want to do this they need to be all in.”

It’s an effective investment for brands to connect with social causes. However, there are pitfalls if this is not done in a thoughtful and substantive way. Consumers expect that when brands support any social issue, it must permeate the company’s overall belief and mission. Corporate social responsibility isn’t a platform for making a =product pitch, but a way to truly align with a cause you and your customers believe in. The best way to understand what your customer thinks and feels? Just ask.

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