5 steps to a transformative corporate advocacy strategy
Many companies make mistakes with corporate advocacy, or “brand activism”, but here’s how you can build a solid strategy that’s meaningful
Corporate advocacy is no longer only stodgy political lobbying for profit motives. These days, it’s about being vocal and making impacts on social, political, economic and environmental issues. Ideally, it has the goal of improving society and addressing systemic issues.
Some call it brand activism, but I prefer the more encompassing term of corporate advocacy. Some say it evolved from corporate social responsibility (CSR), but I’d argue that CSR, in its best practices, is for the benefit of communities AND business. Corporate advocacy is also, in its best practices, for the benefit of business AND communities. That’s why corporate advocacy and CSR initiatives need to be one or work synergistically together.
Over the years, corporate advocacy has moved into the realms of marketing and operations and CEO activism. But corporate advocacy needs to be integrated throughout a company and not relegated to a marketing trend.
The case is already made in favour of corporate advocacy. Most consumers today are belief-driven buyers and expect CEOs to have an opinion or take action on social issues. Businesses are viewed as more competent than governments on some issues, but are not necessarily viewed as ethical (something to improve!). However, 73% agree that a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve conditions in communities where it operates.
One key warning: people will be able to tell when your public advocacy is disingenuous. And once you take a stand on something and are open about your culture and values, consumers will expect you to continue to engage and to be vocal. Advocacy is not something you can pick up and drop out of when it’s convenient.
So if your company is ready to make the commitment, here are five steps that will help you create a transformative corporate advocacy strategy.
1. Be strategically selective
There are a lot of issues out there to support, but focus only on those that won’t leave your customers scratching their heads when they hear about your efforts. Think about your company’s values, products and services and put the issues you select into context. Be clear about why these issues are important to your company.
2. Get out of the silo
Corporate advocacy shouldn’t be in a silo in your company. It needs to be aligned with other social impact and social responsibility measures. It should be a part of the work of all departments.
Get your people on different teams talking together to map out a strategy and work on common issues and goals. Everyone in the company should know about your advocacy strategy and plans so that they can get on board.
3. Influence widely
You’re running ad campaigns on gender equality? That’s nice. But does your company make efforts internally on gender parity and gender equity? Have you been vocal in support of parental leave laws and gender identity protections?
If you’re not challenging the status-quo for the better beyond just marketing and PR, you’re not doing advocacy right.
4. Dig deep, aim high
Your goal should be a transformational agenda that includes but goes beyond signing petitions, joining coalitions and funding initiatives. As the Conference Board of Canada lays out, a transformational agenda should focus on systemic issues and tackling them by influencing government and other stakeholders (including other businesses), leveraging assets, innovating products and services and engaging the finance community.
5. Build partnerships
There is a thin line between advocacy and co-opting movements. You never want to be accused of commercializing injustices, particularly when your message is out of line with your actions. This is also called “woke washing”.
To avoid this, corporate advocacy needs to be developed with community partners. These are some wise words from Ben & Jerry’s Global Head of Integrated Marketing:
“[W]e do not invent campaigns, issues, or causes. And we don’t parachute into a community with money. We take our lead from the activists and leaders of frontline and impacted communities. We ensure our work supports the strategies of leading progressive organizations driving these movements forward. We build our campaigns based on their goals and in support of their strategy. They are the experts in knowing what their communities need.”
Bonus step: be transparent
Why are you doing this? Who are you working with? Who are you meeting with? What are you really doing to help effect change?
Make disclosure part of your process by describing your advocacy efforts in annual reports or articles. Uplift your community partners by promoting their work. And nothing can hide for long, so if you’ve made mistakes and have taken steps to change, be open about it.
These are big asks and goals, but if a company wants to dive into corporate advocacy or brand activism and it is not part of a larger strategy or efforts, the campaigns will fall flat, cause controversy and hurt reputations.
Long-term thinking doesn’t come easily to a short-term business mindset, but when tackling systemic issues, we all must play the long game. If businesses want to improve lives and create a sustainable future, they’ll need to take a proactive approach to corporate advocacy based on values and partnerships and integrated into every aspect of business.
What’s behind the current wave of ‘corporate activism’? (The Conversation)
The New Corporate Social Activism (Oxford Business Blog)
Corporate Advocacy as a Cornerstone of Sustainability (SustainAbility)