Just hours after President Trump announced plans to scale back a national monument in Utah on December 4, Patagonia released a statement: the company would be suing the President over the decision.
It’s a bold move, but not wildly unsurprising for a company that has made a commitment to sustainability part of its brand since day one. Patagonia isn’t the only company looking beyond sales to make a connection with customers. Values-based brands are a growing trend as companies increasingly look to make values the centerpiece of their business—something that can attract a loyal following or widespread condemnation, depending on the perceived authenticity of the sentiment. Getting it right largely depends on company history, and whether actions speak louder than words.
Below are four examples of cause-based marketing that have made an impact—good, bad, and ugly.
Fighting for the great outdoors
Patagonia may be the public face to save Bear Ears National Monument, but it’s not the only outdoor retailer speaking up against the changes. In an industry that is increasingly politicized, The North Face has committed $100,000 to an education center for Bears Ears, while Canadian retailer Arc’teryx announced it would donate $30,000 to the Public Lands Defense Fund, a group challenging the legality of President Trump’s actions.
For companies to wade into a potential political firestorm, the mission must align with the brand’s stated values. In the case of Patagonia, there’s a strong precedent for action. The company has a strong history of environmentalism. Founder Yvon Chouinard has argued that society must move toward a “post-consumerist economy” where goods are high quality, recyclable and repairable. Last year, Patagonia took steps towards this vision with the “Don’t buy this jacket” Black Friday campaign, with sales donated to grassroots environmental organizations.
And arguably, Patagonia’s latest decision to align with environmentalists to protect Utah’s national monuments aligns with the company’s mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
The politics of people
Patagonia’s stance may be “on brand,” but it’s not the only company publicly committing to causes. Fellow outdoor retailer REI made headlines in 2016 with the launch of #optoutside, a commitment to close its stores on Black Friday and give staff a paid day off. The move has since been repeated and extended to other companies, nonprofits and government partners.
Beyond outdoor retailers, Airbnb waded into political territory at this year’s Super Bowl with a television advertisement publicly cementing its commitment to diversity in the same week that President Trump announced his proposed travel ban.
Starting a conversation
Although Airbnb didn’t entirely escape criticism, the backlash was less than Starbuck’s Race Together campaign in 2015. Designed to start conversations about race relations in the U.S., the coffee chain cancelled the effort altogether after critics lampooned the gesture as superficial.
While considered unsuccessful at the time, the Race Together campaign highlighted the company’s commitment to social issues and eagerness to engage in conversations beyond coffee. The chain has since taken action on other issues, including supporting refugees through plans to hire more than 10,000 worldwide in the next five years.
Missing the mark
Less successful was the recent Pepsi campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, which was pulled after widespread criticism for missing the mark in its attempt to co-opt the protest movement. It was a strong lesson in authenticity for companies jumping on the values bandwagon—politically active people are indeed trying to change the world, but not through soda or supermodels.
Making a connection
Cause-related campaigns have a huge potential to help companies connect with customers in a meaningful way, but clearly, it’s easy to misstep. Customers today buy from companies that project the same values as they do. Understanding the values of your customers as well as shifting cultural norms can help you figure out if your stance aligns with your customer base.
Of course, for some companies, values come first and customers follow. Just ask successful retailers like The Body Shop and TOMS, where values–based marketing has been the cornerstone of their business. In those cases, standing up for what you believe in might be the most important step—if you are perceived as being genuine and doing good in the world, you are much more likely to make a positive impact.