Companies have long run sustainability initiatives that exclude customers. To be fair, these companies have donated a percentage of profits to charities, volunteered employee time, reduced emissions, cleaned up supply chains, and much more. However, their customers have been on the sideline, sometimes aware but not personally engaged.
Through corporate activism, brands can change this dynamic and make customers partners in their most meaningful sustainability initiatives. Here are some tips based on brands that have used it successfully.
The mechanics of corporate activism
Corporate activism is an activity that gives people opportunities to engage with social issues they care about. It’s more than just donating money to a cause or buying products that trigger donations. Rather, it’s about creating social change through noncommercial actions, such as emailing a lawmaker or sharing a position on social media.
Corporate activism is potent because it creates awareness and cultivates personal concern, which are core motivators in sustainable purchases. If you’re willing to email, call or tweet at your Senator, you’ve gained awareness and demonstrated concern. If you weren’t about to base your next food purchases on environmental factors but you just participated in a campaign for sustainable agriculture, it’s harder to put price over values.
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1. Take a stand that makes sense
Advocate for an issue that is tied to your business and consistent with your existing brand image. 1 Hotels — “a mission-driven, nature-inspired, luxury lifestyle brand” — did just that. In April 2018, it launched its “Earth Day Every Day” campaign, a year-long initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues related to saving the world’s coastlines.
Among many issues, its 2018 campaign focuses on ending the global plastic pollution problem. 1 Hotels’ properties are located in coastal areas, so its stance is related to its core business.
2. Provide easy access to information
Corporate activism campaigns should make it easy for consumers to understand the issue. 1 Hotels created a smart awareness campaign involving a speaker series, film screenings, t-shirts, letter-writing rooms and more.
Together, we also designed action centers that appear in each 1 Hotels lobby. These digital kiosks offer educational materials on issues including offshore drilling, rising sea levels and beach pollution. Visitors can see how those issues affect their hometown or look at the problem on a larger scale.
3. Personal concern through action
After sharing information about the state of our coastlines, the 1 Hotels kiosks invite visitors to select a cause, then message their federal, state and local lawmakers via email. The advocates can use pre-filled messages or create their own content. This approach automatically segments consumers based on the issues they care about most.
On day one of the campaign, 1 Hotels customers sent over 1,000 emails to state and federal officials from the brand’s three properties in South Beach, Brooklyn and Central Park. In addition to the kiosks, we set up a digital action page where anyone can participate (notice that the action page — identical to the one in the kiosks — uses a zip code to identify the user’s local legislators. Zero friction).
4. Walk the talk
Some companies run into trouble because their sustainability campaigns look like shameless marketing ploys. To be credible, the brand advocating for an issue must operate in ways that further the cause.
Case in point with 1 Hotels: Its properties feature environmentally friendly materials and clever, sustainable designs. For instance, its Brooklyn location has a stormwater collection mechanism that irrigates the nearby Brooklyn Bridge Park, saving precious freshwater resources.
Making sustainability personal
Consumers can become indifferent or even cynical towards sustainability when it feels distant and unnoticeable. Companies should continue with initiatives that further sustainability; however, they should complement these programs with corporate activism that makes customers part of the fight for shared values and social objectives.
A warning, though: Corporate activism only works if the intention is pure. Don’t think like a marketer who would try to link sustainability campaigns to purchases. Your ROI is motivating people to act on their beliefs. If you happen to sell more goods as a result, consider it a bonus.