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Since the dawn of time, the 18-to-34 demographic has been the most targeted demographic in consumer marketing. It makes sense: This age group encompasses young adults who have entered the workforce, are actively building futures for themselves, and collectively have hundreds of billions in spending cash. Capturing the attention of this demographic can do more than drive sales. It can make a brand cool – or even a cultural phenomenon.

In today’s world, that coveted 18-to-34 demographic consists of Gen Z and Millennial consumers. These are two distinct generations with their own preferences, but there is common ground according to market research: They both value authenticity, and they both look for brand values that align with their own – as both consumers and employees.

Both of these generations also consider a brand’s stance on social issues as part of their customer journey. Topics such as civil rights, racism, LGBTQIA+ discrimination, and global humanitarian crises are among the issues these generations care about deeply – but as recent marketing campaigns have shown, aligning your brand to one audience segment may alienate other segments of your consumer base.

In this blog post, we’ll help you navigate those challenging waters successfully. Along the way, we’ll explain why you need an expert partner to execute the groundwork and understand the best practices for aligning your brand with potentially polarizing social causes.

Lessons Learned from Recent Bud Light and Target Campaigns

Even when the intentions behind a campaign are good, a significant portion of a company’s customer base may disagree with brands that take a stand. Highly publicized campaigns by Bud Light and Target are good examples of what can happen when demographics clash.

In the case of Bud Light, a product promotion by transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on Instagram was met with a backlash that has led to a significant decrease in sales. Based on Mulvaney’s age (26) and Instagram’s core user demographics (60%+ between the ages of 18 and 34), this was not a “national ad campaign” in the traditional sense. It was aimed at Gen Z and Millennial consumers in an attempt to build brand growth and popularity in younger demographics.

In Target’s case, Pride Month merchandise was at the center of the firestorm. Target has been selling Pride Month products in its stores for more than a decade, yet 2023 was the year when they were met with backlash on social media – backlash based on a false claim about products for children. In response, Target pulled Pride Month products from some stores and moved Pride Month displays to less-prominent areas of its stores. This about-face angered the LGBTQIA+ community and its supporters – essentially alienating two vastly different customer segments over the course of the campaign.

From a brand strategy standpoint, both of these examples were less about the important social issues at their core. Both Bud Light and Target made missteps in fundamental areas that affect every PR, marketing, and advertising campaign: Understanding the complexity of your customer base, assessing the potential risks of any campaign, and coming up with a crisis communications plan that anticipates those risks.

Don’t Stop Taking a Stand

The wrong takeaway from the Bud Light and Target examples is that your brand should stay away from important social issues. Nike, Carhartt, and Apple have achieved growth and success after taking a firm stand on social issues in campaigns, so there are plenty of success stories to go along with the cautionary tales. Doing it right involves making sure that the topic at hand represents an authentic connection to your brand, not simply treating it as a “marketing hook.” 

It’s important to examine and assess your company’s stance on social issues through the lens of the generations that will drive your future success – both as part of your workforce and as its customers. The customers and employees that will shape your future are looking for brands that are a force for positive change that practice what they preach in a multitude of ways: Sustainability practices, DEI initiatives, championing mental health, giving back to the community, promoting a healthy work-life balance, and providing career growth opportunities, just to name a few.

No matter how noble the cause, being a force for positive change requires understanding the values of your brand and your audience and assessing whether those two things are aligned. Brands need to closely evaluate their messaging, the reality of their public-facing activities and brand persona, and commit to making important changes if they are necessary. 

It's essential to evaluate your strategy from all points of view, assess your potential risks, and plan accordingly. There are several stages in that all-important journey.

The Elements of a Successful Campaign

Long before you consider any campaign that aligns your brand to any social issue, you must consider a wide range of fundamentals. These may seem like no-brainers, but many brands overlook the groundwork that can make or break any marketing or PR effort.

In plain terms, your brand must first understand who you are and who you want to attract. Those answers can be unlocked via brand surveys and market research. Once those elements have been defined, you can move on to how to attract those audiences with your messaging and where to do it via your media strategy. Lastly, you’ll need to know how to respond if anything goes wrong, which can be achieved by a comprehensive crisis communications plan.

Consumer and employee surveys: What does the outside world think of your brand? How well is your brand living up to its values? Are those values well-known throughout your workforce? There’s no better way to find out than to ask the internal and external people that drive your success. You’ll need to create and conduct surveys that reveal how the outside world views your brand and how your employees truly feel about working for the company. It requires in-depth work with your HR team, knowledge of the technical tools required, and a dedication to improvement based on the results.

Market research: Your audience isn’t the same thing as your customer base, as reaching new people who may be interested in your products and services is the key to growth. You’ll need to identify the best target demographics for your growth, the best ways to connect with those audiences, and the key topics of interest within those demographics. You’ll also need to pay attention to socio-political topics that may be points of conflict across segments of your audience, helping you assess the risk of any proposed campaign.

Core messaging: “Core messaging” is a deceptively simple phrase. It means everything from your tagline, website copy, and other public-facing elements to your internal employee handbook. When was the last time your organization assessed all those materials? Good news: The best time to do so is after conducting consumer/employee surveys and market research. That way, you can revisit your core messaging and marketing campaigns with an up-to-date understanding of your opportunities and challenges. 

Media relations strategy: For Gen Z and Millennials, social media is a primary avenue of researching, connecting with, and buying products from brands. Many companies still think of social media as an afterthought, but it’s potentially the most important part of any company’s media strategy in today’s world. The perfect media strategy for your brand will represent the perfect blend of core brand messaging, social media amplification and engagement, and traditional print, online, and broadcast outlets. 

Crisis communications plan: The market research phase mentioned above is just one of many critical elements in a thorough crisis communications plan. Market research will help you identify any topical risk factors introduced by your proposed campaign, but a comprehensive crisis communications plan will also provide a key messaging overview, a matrix of key spokespeople for press inquiries, and step-by-step instructions regarding the actions to take if your brand faces unwanted public backlash.

We’re ready to provide expert guidance and execution on any or all of these stages. Is your brand ready to grow and achieve its next level of success? Airfoil has been a trusted partner for brands around the world for more than two decades, and we want you to be our next success story. Reach out to us, and let’s set your brand growth in motion.

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