May 09, 2018 / in Comms Best Practices / by Maggie Latham

Interest in socially conscious business has been on the rise over the past decade and is now even more significant due to the political change of 2017. The Global Strategy Group’s study found that 81 percent of Americans believe corporations should take action to address important issues facing society. That’s an increase of 9 percent from when the study first began.  

Now the push is on businesses of all kinds to engage directly with the most difficult issues of our times. With the ability to research online, customers are seeking the truth and showing concern with many brands that don’t live up to their expectations. For example, the ethical fashion company Everlane has grown in popularity due to its "radical transparency." Consumers want businesses to be purpose-driven, not just charitable and are no longer easily deceived by those who are pretending.


Following are some approaches that successful purpose-driven businesses use:

Mindful Startups Value Quality Over Quantity

When starting a business it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that more is better. Instead, many businesses have been rejecting — and progressively continue to reject — the culture of making as much money as possible with the highest achievable margins. They realize that consumers are more aware of ethical issues and that quality of the product or service is most significant.

Idea-based tech startups are especially keen on the importance of a creating a quality service which people will come back to use again. One example of this is the company Kickstarter, which was founded in 2009 with a deep commitment to arts and culture and a mission to help fund creative projects. In 2015, the business became a public benefit corporation, meaning it is a “for-profit company that is obligated to consider the impact of their decisions on society, not only shareholders.” Every year since Kickstarter has released a benefit statement showing the actual data and steps taken to change inequality in our society. The company does this through community outreach as well as employee benefits. By Silicon Valley standards, Kickstarter is not a very profitable or scalable business, making only an estimated $43 million since its launch. But founder Yancy Strickler disagrees saying, “Scale is so relative, and we’re one of the name brands of the Internet. That’s happened somehow. I think we will probably change more lives than a lot of companies that will have significantly higher valuations than us.”

He also talks about the way in which Kickstarter has always been “very ideological” and how he’s been able to keep it like that, and “do right by our world and our family and friends and community.” Because Kickstarter values the quality of their business, they care less about the amount of money they’re bringing in or the number of viable projects that are funded through their site. Their position as one of the most popular crowdfunding sites is a direct result of the steps they take to ensure quality.

Environmentally-Friendly Businesses Practice What They Preach

It is one thing to market a brand as socially conscious or eco-friendly but another to actually live up to those standards. As discussed earlier, if a business isn’t living up to the standards it promotes, consumers won’t be afraid to call it out or start a boycott.  

Method, the eco-friendly cleaning products company, is one instance of a brand that promotes ethical materials for their merchandise and follows these same standards in the workplace. Method is a part of People Against Dirty, which is a B corporation. This means the business is legally required to meet comprehensive, transparent standards and legally integrate stakeholder interests into their corporate governance. Obligated to consider their impact on the environment, Method follows a set of standards they call Beyond the Bottle.

For example, they opened the cleaning products industry’s first LEED platinum-certified factory in Chicago, setting new standards for making soap. Here workers are paid more than 40 percent above a living wage and more than 80 percent employee satisfaction is reported. This shows that Method strives to make their motto and their product ideals into a physical reality. These practices have led to the brand’s recent acquisition, showing their mainstream popularity and success with consumers.

Activist Brands Take a Bold Stance

Despite the risk, brands that take a leap of faith and stand up for what they believe in can ultimately succeed due to our current political atmosphere. Patagonia, an outdoors-gear company, has fought for many environmental rights issues over the 40 plus years they've been in business — and now that they're increasing their activism, they're becoming even more popular.

When President Trump decided to significantly reduce the protected land of the Bears Ears National monument in Utah, the retailer decided to take a stand. They became the first company to bring a lawsuit on the President of the United States, stating on the front page of their website, “The president stole your land.” This garnered a huge reaction, even causing the website to crash from all the traffic. Though it could seem like a bold and risky move for the business, Chief Executive Officer Rose Marcario told students at the University of California in April,  “Any time that we do something good for the environment, we make more money.”  

Pursuing this lawsuit pleases loyal followers of the brand who are familiar with its environmental activism, but it brings new attention too. From first glance, it makes Patagonia more interesting to outsiders. Rather than just donating money to an environmental cause through purchasing items, customers are able to back a force of change. Patagonia’s bold confidence and care are helping to expand their audience.

Conscious Marketing Uses Urgency to Everyone’s Advantage

Even though more brands are pushing for change, the Conscious Consumer Index of 2017 shows an increase in apathetic customers due to the political atmosphere in the U.S.  

A classic research study by Howard Leventhal demonstrates how “human minds are susceptible to blocking out information that evokes a sense of urgency if there aren’t any instructions on what to do next.”

Socially conscious brands are aware of the deluge of current issues on social media and use urgency in a beneficial way. As shown below, Patagonia adds captions to their Instagram posts that give instructions such as, “Tell the Administration that they don't have the authority to take these lands away from you by visiting our profile link.” This helps consumers easily address an issue that is important to them, and the business also benefits from the plan for action.

Overall, a socially responsible brand that focuses on a broader cause — or a cause that directly affects them — is much more acceptable to the public than a brand that endorses a specific political candidate or backs a divisive issue.

Keep in mind that successful purpose-driven businesses examine what is right for their audience and think about the potential backlash when supporting a cause. That being said, 91 percent of millennials and 85 percent of the average U.S. public would switch brands to one associated with a cause today.

As for all three examples — Patagonia, Method and Kickstarter — each found a way to be purpose driven from the outset, which makes their commitment to social issues less shocking as they increase engagement.

In the end, customers are attracted and loyal to businesses which are dedicated to the ideals they uphold.

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About Maggie Latham

Maggie Latham is an artist/designer, writer and small business owner. She has written for Cision on the topics of brand design, social media marketing and conscious business.