How brands can take a stand on social issues

June 21, 2021 | By: Heather Eng, Sr. Editorial Lead

In the summer of 2020, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the US and around the world to protest George Floyd’s murder, and support Black Lives Matter and the pursuit of social justice.

The brand team at LIFEWTR, a premium water brand, was among those who felt compelled to act. “Our team saw the social unrest taking place, and we wanted to do something as a brand,” says Michael Smith, Head of Marketing Communication, LIFEWTR. “But we also wanted to do something that felt right for LIFEWTR.”

LIFEWTR is known for their clear bottles that showcase works of art. Since launching in 2017, LIFEWTR has updated their packaging multiple times a year to feature various artists, including those from underrepresented groups.

That summer, “we hit on an important insight,” says Smith. “Over the course of history, artists and creators have amplified movements for social justice. We decided to partner with artists whose work was fueled by the need for social justice, and amplify them to a larger audience to allow more people to see work from Black artists and understand the importance of equality in our society.”

The result was “Black Art Rising,” a “digital time capsule” that showcased eight artists. The virtual experience was reminiscent of visiting an art gallery. Viewers could read profiles of each artist and see different pieces of their work—all of which brought to life their interpretation of the movement. LIFEWTR promoted the artists on social media and gave each creator a one-week takeover of their Instagram channel.

In February, for Black History Month, LIFEWTR launched a limited edition “Black Art Rising” bottle series, featuring the work of three artists: Adler Guerrier, Dawn Okoro, and Tajh Rust. On Amazon, LIFEWTR transformed their Store into a gallery showcasing each artist and their work, plus a link to the artists’ websites.

LIFEWTR’s Amazon Store featuring “Black Art Rising”

“Our consumers have been so excited by it,” says Smith. “They've wanted to see all of the artists’ work. They believe in the vision and the mission from the brand.”

Today, customers are increasingly shopping with their values. A recent Salesforce survey found that 71% of consumers pay more attention to companies’ values than they did a year ago, and 61% of consumers have stopped buying from a company whose values didn’t align with theirs.1 Yet, some brands struggle when it comes to taking a stand on social issues. Customers today know that actions speak louder than words—and are aware of when brands’ social activism is more performative than authentic.

At a recent Adweek “At Home” panel, presented by Amazon Advertising, Smith shared his advice for how brands can participate in social movements in meaningful ways while building trust with customers.

Michael Smith, Head of Marketing Communication, LIFEWTR

Know who your brand is and what you stand for

Taking a stand on social issues starts with your brand identity.

“What does your brand stand for?” asks Smith. “Everything has to grow from that. LIFEWTR, as a brand, is about inspiring creativity. That's why we approached ‘Black Art Rising’ the way we did, because it felt authentic to our central mission. And we felt like we could do that in a way that was going to have a positive societal impact by giving a voice to underrepresented creators.”

Smith recommends that marketers start by identifying what their brand stands for, and then determine what causes ladder up to that, authentically.

When a single vision converges among different teams, that’s when magic happens. When you have a shared vision and you’re executing against a shared purpose, the work gets nothing but better.– Michael Smith, Head of Marketing Communication, LIFEWTR

Build “muscle memory” by taking a stand in ways that align with your brand

The next step is to evaluate what you have done, or believe that you can do in the future, that has a positive societal impact—and aligns to what your brand stands for.

“If you can find that overlap in a Venn diagram, then you can really be successful,” Smith says. “I think where marketers go wrong with positive intent is when they don't find that overlap—when they wade into conversations and issues that either they haven't built up enough equity to be an authority on, or that feels like an obvious and transparent stretch towards what's relevant in culture.”

Smith likens developing that equity to building muscle memory—the process in which your muscles “remember” how to do specific actions innately through practice. LIFEWTR has a history of amplifying artists whose voices aren’t often heard in the mainstream. That “muscle memory” enabled them to create “Black Art Rising”—they’d been doing the work consistently, and it aligned with their brand identity.

“When you live your values, it becomes so much easier to espouse that to your customers,” Smith says. “When you don't, the probability that you swing and miss is infinitely higher because you're not practicing it on a day-to-day basis.”

Communicate your values often

As Smith noted, taking a stand isn’t a one-off tweet or Instagram post—today’s customers want to see a real commitment from brands.

“We want that to be consistent across everything we do,” says Smith. “It's not just about last summer. It's not just about Black History Month. It's about what we believe our brand stands for, and that has to be consistent.”

Following “Black Art Rising,” LIFEWTR launched a “Life Unseen” collaboration with Issa Rae, the actress, writer, and producer.

“This concept is that you can't be what you can't see,” says Smith “When black creators, or LGBTQ-plus creators, or creators from any underrepresented community aren't seen and their work isn't seen, young people from the same community don't believe that they could have the opportunity because they don't see anyone doing it that looks like them.”

Life Unseen highlights the work of 20 creators from film, TV, music, the visual arts, and fashion. LIFEWTR collaborated with Rae to find and promote the artists, and help fund some of their work.

It’s another way LIFEWTR is continuing their mission of elevating underrepresented voices in the arts while staying true to their brand.

Collaborate with organizations that share your values

There’s strength in working with people or organizations that share your values. For LIFEWTR, that includes artists like Issa Rae and individual creators, to companies like Amazon, who helped promote “Black Art Rising.”

“When a single vision converges among different teams, that’s when magic happens,” says Smith. “When you have a shared vision and you’re executing against a shared purpose, the work gets nothing but better.”

Understand and believe in your customers

“If you think about what a brand is at the end of the day, the most powerful brands represent a part of an individual’s self-identity,” says Smith. “That's why they want to be associated with the brand. That's part of the reason that they buy the brand.”

“It’s always easy to be risk-averse,” he continues. “Believe in your customer's willingness to rally around your brand when you take a stand for what you think is right. And if you know your customer and if you know your brand, you're going to succeed more than you'll fail.”

1 “State of the Connected Consumer, fourth edition,” Salesforce, 2021.