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People Over Profit: The Future of Social Impact Marketing

Aaron Harvey, Ready Set Rocket

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Over the last decade, Corporate Social Responsibility has gone from a line item in fiscal budgets to a major brand priority.

Consumers are increasingly making purchase decisions based on authenticity and brand activism, with 92% wanting to do business with companies that share their values and 88% believing companies should achieve their business goals while improving society.

Amidst these shifting expectations, social impact work has become a business imperative. Within organizations, it’s been shown to improve employee productivity and retention by up to 30% and 50% respectively. Financially, it’s been ​shown​ to reduce the cost of debt by 40%, increase revenue by up to 20%, and increase market value from 4-6%.

In response, brand marketers are fighting to be seen as forces for good. We’ve developed programs and campaigns about relevant social issues. We’ve aligned ourselves with movements and organizations that make an impact. We’ve hosted fundraisers and worked inclusive language into Instagram copy. But it’s often not enough.

Today’s consumers are experts in spotting inconsistencies. They want real authenticity with real impact, not opportunistic activism. Even with recent increases in social impact campaigns, 40% of people still think brands aren’t doing enough to demonstrate their beliefs in helping the world. And you can’t blame them. Consumers are constantly inundated with organizations touting the importance of their values, while continuing to contribute to systemic issues at the same time. So, how do brands win?

Assess Your Footprint

Organizations often piggyback on popular causes in order to elicit an emotional response from consumers. A fashion brand might run a campaign about registering to vote, or an alcohol brand will weigh in on the gender pay gap. Even when it resonates, this strategy only works in the short term. Hijacking timely issues doesn’t speak to an organization’s broader cultural impact or the responsibility they feel to bettering their immediate communities. Instead, assess your own brand footprint and identify where you can behave more responsibly. Make strides to improve the industries and communities you’re involved in, while seeking to hit revenue goals at the same time.

You can start by asking your brand what it stands for. How has it supported harmful industries, stereotypes, people or belief systems? What aspects of its output are problematic? Be critical and honest. Then, counteract your mistakes.

Define Your Role

Some brands exist to make our lives easier. Others, to make them more productive, enjoyable or interactive. Whatever the case, it’s imperative that every organization maintains an acute understanding of the value they provide their audience. Once established, lean into this utility. A key component of successful social impact work is investing in initiatives that don’t just garner emotional responses, but are truly productive. This often means steering clear of short campaigns or viral videos, and instead, investing in sustainable platforms, like Univision’s ​Your America​ voter registration initiative or Vans ​Custom Culture​ partnership with Americans for the Arts. Given the role you play in the everyday lives of your base, how can your brand effect real, ongoing change in a scalable way?

Earn Your Credibility

Finally, social currency is something you earn, not buy. If you’re looking for immediate gratification from social impact work, you’re approaching it through the wrong lens. After analyzing your output, aligning on a mission, and defining a credible role for your organization, invest time and energy into giving back without expecting any immediate returns. When you reach a place where progress can be shown, then it’s time to discuss a PR play. The key is proving you’ve been productive before asking for praise.

Success comes in different forms. And despite the countless examples of brands doing it wrong, there are also a number who have committed to doing it right.

IKEA has long been a champion of purpose-driven growth. Their business functions with two primary goals in mind: affordability and sustainability. The brand believes you can improve home life and the environment at the same time, and has structured their organization in order to do so. Their ​“People & Planet”​ initiative aims to make the company’s entire supply chain 100% sustainable by 2020 while doubling sales at the same time. Efforts include implementing energy-efficient LED lighting into buildings and products, sourcing cotton and wood from more sustainable sources, and pledging over $1 billion towards climate action.

Beyond brands, marketing leaders must prioritize their own purpose-driven business strategies. Agencies have a responsibility to lead by example. We have the knowledge, experience and power to help the world’s largest corporations think about advocacy and social good in ways that can affect real change. But it starts by doing so within our own organizations. In this new age of marketing, social responsibility and progress are connected to business success, and those who are unwilling to champion a cause, will fall behind

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About the author: As co-founder and Executive Creative Director at NYC-based digital marketing agency Ready Set Rocket, Aaron leads a team of strategic and innovative thinkers that create campaigns for top brands like Ann Taylor, Deutsche Bank, Michael Kors, Lacoste, Seagram’s and Univision. Aaron is a passionate mental health advocate, and founder of the OCD nonprofit IntrusiveThoughts.org that provides sufferers of anxiety disorders with educational resources and empowers them to seek treatment.