The Super Bowl has historically been the place where brands have debuted their big marketing campaigns for the next year, capturing viewers from what is still one of the most-watched events in the U.S. The past few years, those campaigns have included stark stands on social issues: from Audi on women empowerment during last year’s game to Dodge making a connection between its Ram Trucks and public service the other week.

The problem? Both of these ads came off almost immediately as inauthentic, and lead to an online backlash. Audi was immediately called out for how few women actually work at the company. And Dodge debuted its campaign with a distasteful voice overlay from Martin Luther King, Jr.

In several studies in the past year, consumers have communicated how they expect business to lead on social issues. Sixty-six percent of consumers say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues. Fifty-eight percent consumers have declined to purchase a product because they didn’t believe in what a company stood for.

With so many consumers wanting business to engage in the public sphere, why are so many brands getting it wrong?

Many companies are still using 20th century approaches to engage in a 21st century world. The ground is shifting underneath more dramatically than they’ve realized, and the way they run their business hasn’t changed enough to adapt. Digital disruption is giving consumers more information and more choices than they’ve ever had before, and that is reflected in their increasing demands for social responsibility.

You now live your values as a company every day, not just when you talk about them. With a thousand media touch points, and infinite new connection points to your employees, consumers know whether you walk the walk when it comes to the social issues you say you care about. Corporate social responsibility can no longer be outsourced to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); it has to be at the core of what you do.

If those values aren’t expressed in your business practices first, forget it. Want to be about women empowerment? Start by hiring more women and paying them the same as their male counterparts. Say you care about the environment? Then your products have to reflect that in how they’re sourced and how they’re discarded. Authenticity isn’t just good advice for communications. It has to be at the core of your business.

No one will believe your values matter if your marketing is still run like a top-down operation. The best, most authentic Super Bowl commercials achieve some word-of-mouth in the weeks after the big game. Then what? The best brand marketing today takes advantage of new digital tools to create an ongoing conversation around the brand’s values, listening to the feedback of customers and integrating it into the core identity of the brand every day.

Your brand’s identity is built by what everyday people say, not what your ads say. Recognizing that reality is the first step to creating trust with your customer base. People will believe you stand for what you say you stand for if they’ve seen it.

With that framing in mind, today’s brands can begin to make progress toward authentic engagement on social issues with a few big first steps:

  1. Move social engagement to the core of your business practices. In a recent letter to its portfolio companies, Laurence D. Fink, founder and CEO of the influential investment firm BlackRock, said “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose.” Data from the recently released 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that global consumers now expect business to lead on social issues—more so than any other institution. Instead of hiding behind a cloud of neutrality, companies have to have a strong sense of the values at their core—and then live those values out loud.
  2. Merge corporate strategy and brand strategy. If digital disruption hasn’t already begun to break down the silos between marketing and the rest of your organization, you’re already behind. If there is any daylight between how you run your company and the promises your brand is making, consumers will call it out immediately.
  3. Evolve your marketing operation to be digital-first. Not only will owning and integrating a comprehensive digital strategy give you better data and insights into your customers, you’ll be better able to rapidly respond to opportunities and threats. Digitally savvy operations build equity with customer bases through consistent touch points, not flash-in-the-pan advertising campaigns. That gives smart brands a platform from which to engage on social issues they care about—and assumed trust during a crisis.

Earning the trust needed to meaningfully engage in today’s environment isn’t the responsibility of marketing alone—or even CSR. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be forced through with the right advertising campaign. When it comes to social issues they care about, consumers want your entire company consistently engaged.


Caleb Gardner is the co-founder and managing partner of 18 Coffees, a digital strategy and innovation firm helping mission-driven companies get a foothold in the future. Caleb work has spanned helping Fortune 100 clients, nonprofits, startups, and political leaders with communications and digital transformation.



The AMADC blog is your source for relevant, actionable and provocative content. Looking for a way to get your voice heard? We're looking for dedicated writers to join our team! Email for more information.