Enter The Cause Marketing Game Or Not? Brands In For Pandemic, Not So Much For Black Lives Matter

When COVID-19 hit, the choice for brands to shift to cause marketing and social responsibility was clear.

Brand thinking went something like this: “We need to reassure our consumers that we are here for them, that we are engaged and listening, and understand the issues and challenges that they are facing.”

Commercials about clean environments, relaxed payment schedules, community service, even the pivoting of core businesses dominated campaigns on every form of media. Teams and leagues found new ways to engage with, and support, their fans. Now, as things start to return to “normal,” offerings are being updated to reflect expanding consumer confidence and a return to a sense of normalcy.

That was the easy part.

Over the past two weeks, on top of the coronavirus shutdown, we have witnessed Black Lives Matter, a massive campaign tied to racial injustice, boil over with the horrific killing of George Floyd, on the heels of the senseless deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and many others, known and unknown. The protests around the world have been unprecedented, the imploring of civic leaders to take action has been relentless and the participation of the sports world has been just as expansive.

We have seen athletes, especially those of color, use their platforms to speak, and for the most part most teams and leagues have at least given a position. There has been focus around the NFL in particular, as it has been embroiled in controversy around former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick kneeling to protest police brutality for four years (notably supported by Nike). Everyone wants to know what will happen with “Take A Knee” going forward, as well as the give-and-take between players and shield leadership. The football is, to use a cliché, quite political.

But what about brands taking up the cause of social justice, especially tied to sport?

For the large part thus far, we have heard…silence in terms of actions and campaigns.

Some exceptions are there–Ben & Jerry’s has led the way in the corporate world, while Jordan Brand/ Nike/ Converse along with adidas (whose pledge notably came after an uprising from employees about issues in the company) have stood out among sports brands–but largely companies are listening, waiting and trying to figure out how to navigate these newly turbulent waters.

Why? The call to action is nowhere near as unified as it was just a few weeks ago during a pandemic-only focus.

Where will cause-related marketing go and how can brands find a safe space without falling off message?

Some teams such as the NBA Los Angeles Clippers have shined with their terrific video narrated by Paul George:

Another impressive statement came from the MLB Boston Red Sox:

“Brands find themselves at important and historical crossroads right now. Many want to play a role in improving racial equality and improving the unity divide in our country but there are important, initial steps that first must be considered,” says Michael Neuman, Managing Partner, Scout Sports & Entertainment and professor at Columbia University, who is also a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council for Horizon Media, SSE’s parent company.

“It is hard for a brand to stand for something if they don’t exemplify those qualities inside their very own organizations,” Neuman continues. “Brands must first be committed to wholesale change around their own diversity and inclusion protocols, making sure their own environments are considered ‘best in class.’ Too many brands use crisis to influence their own brand messaging only to have their positions challenged by employees and customers as inauthentic. The most authentic brands, who engage in productive and positive dialogue around race, are the companies that prioritize diversity, job training, advancement, inclusion and the education of unconscious bias within their organizations year-round. How you treat your employees is how you wind up treating your customers.”

SEE “SportsCannaBiz: The Role of Brands” that includes a look at systemic racism around CBD/Cannabis

To the customer and employee, ties to cause are at the heart of the issue for companies right now, especially with a workforce spread far and wide. Especially now, at a time when spending may be getting cut, and ROI is tantamount.

“COVID-19 was an easier activation for those companies who even were just starting their work in corporate responsibility and philanthropy,” adds Harrie Bakst, co-founder of WCPG, a company that works with teams, properties, celebrities and brands to maximize social responsibility output through marketing and cause. “With the protests you are seeing much more of a paralysis and a fear of a misstep, at least for now. Companies know for the most part that there is a stance to be taken, but how, and where that will be taken to really create impact has yet to be figured out. The coronavirus was a clear enemy for all. Here you have a highly political issue with very passionate voices so ‘wait and see’ is much more the norm, especially with budgets being so challenged right now. You will see companies step up for social justice reform, they are trying to figure it out.”

Figuring out how to tie in, and what that narrative will be, remains very fluid.

“Regardless of your interest in politics, using the power of your brand platform to engage with an audience looking to be involved is a place many companies should be looking towards, especially as social responsibility becomes a more tangible asset going forward.”

– Jene Elzie, Athletes First Partners

However, areas of engagement, brand activation and social responsibility are emerging daily. One that is getting particular attention with both professional athletes and student-athletes is tied to civic engagement and voting registration. This week we have seen current and former NFL players like Ryan Mundy speak up about the impact and awareness consumers need to have on the local level with regard to voting, and colleges, ranging from Georgia Tech to UCLA to LSU to the entire America East Conference, have now started to take a public, proactive stance with regard to voting…not just this Nov, but for the long term as well.

Get Out the Vote activation is a cause, and a platform that can have great relevance for brands big and small, as it does not tie to a political party…it ties to an overall awareness movement with huge value. Earlier this week, LeBron James launched More Than a Vote along with other current and former basketball stars such as Trae Young, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jalen Rose.

“One area that a brand can have a clear impact is around voter registration and civic engagement,” says Jene Elzie, Chief Growth Officer at Athletes First Partners, herself a former elite gymnast at Stanford University before starting a career that has seen leadership roles at the NBA, NBC and other large-scale companies. “Regardless of your interest in politics, using the power of your brand platform to engage with an audience looking to be involved is a place many companies should be looking towards, especially as social responsibility becomes a more tangible asset going forward.”

Fortunately, the process to measure tangible results for your brand is greatly refined now.

“Not too long ago companies, even teams, would align with causes and hope that it was more than a feel good opportunity,” Bakst adds. “Now with the analytic tools we have to use we can track sentiment, share of voice and impact to see if the cause alignment fits well, and we can adjust in real time. The beauty of social media is it gives you a window to the world that we did not have before, and that is really critical for a kind of amorphous lift that cause marketing is.”

All of this opportunity is still not without angst and worry of missteps.

As Microsoft and Amazon have experienced, simply saying “Black Lives Matter” is not enough. This moment provides an opportunity to step back and look at not only company culture or hiring/promotion practices, but remind everyone how the words and actions of every employee–all the way to the CEO–must reflect inclusiveness.

CrossFit, a fitness brand that has seen a meteoric rise in recent years, was dealt a major blow this week when CEO Greg Glassman resigned from his position days after he “created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members” with posts on social media detrimental to George Floyd and the BLM movement.

The most egregious tweet from CrossFit founder and now former CEO, Greg Glassman

He later apologized, but not before main sponsor Reebok said it would not renew its deal with the brand when it expires this year and other partners also said they were ending or reconsidering their CrossFit alliances. Glassman will be replaced by Dave Castro, director of the CrossFit Games.

Those missteps can–and will–be death for brands, so sitting back and watching and listening while crafting an entry point is frequently viewed as safer than “leading with a chin,” so to speak.

However, there are others who point out that those who will speak…and lead…this time may get a bigger boost by a consumer who, given the double whammy of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter may have longer memories than who did, or didn’t step up this time.

“I think the biggest thing people are noticing now is silence and inaction,” adds Quentin Williams, a former collegiate athlete at Boston College, player representative and litigator who also spent several years working with NBA and NFL community groups, and now runs Dedication to Community, a company that helps law enforcement better connect with communities through positive dialogue.

Williams continues, “Whether you are a brand, a city, a league, a team, an athlete or even a celebrity, you have a chance to positively use your platform to invoke positive change. And note the consumer is looking to create that change through community involvement, especially tied right now to law enforcement. Every day we have conversations with a growing number of athletes and teams especially who are both concerned and frustrated, and want to drive positive change. Some are stuck trying to organize, others are motivated and moving. The movers can build and invoke creative solutions and also use those platforms to engage with their brand partners to expand even further. It is a win for all and will help us bridge a gap even quicker, but movement, not inaction is what will determine success.”

What success looks like for brands chasing ROI with ties to corporate responsibility may be drastically different in the coming months. According to most experts, brands who will “take a risk” by supporting causes tied to very emotional community–and somewhat political–initiatives will be a slow but steadily growing group.

“The biggest thing people are noticing now is silence and inaction.”

-Quentin Williams, Dedication to Community

Support the consumer against a pandemic? We’re in.

Embrace a social cause? Right now…we’re waiting it out.

For those who don’t wait and insert in the narrative with the right tone, the benefits can be bigger than expected. For those who don’t, we won’t ever know. Such is sports marketing halfway through 2020.