OpinionPOSTED March 9, 2022

Not investing in brand advocacy is a strategic miss – A Q&A with APEX Managing Partner Ken Evans

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Anti-racism helping concept. Two strong and brave hands holding together, allyship to support a world with more solidarity, equal justice and opportunity, collaboration, racial equality. A thread binds the two parts.

Consumers are looking for brands that genuinely embody their values proactively. While corporate social responsibility is a great way for brands to give back to their communities, a true commitment to ongoing advocacy is what separates brand leaders from followers. Sit in on our Q&A with Managing Partner Kenneth Evans to learn more about what brand advocacy is, and how it can benefit your brand as well as your community.

 Q: What’s the difference between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and advocacy?

A: Corporate social responsibility and advocacy are very different and often get muddled together with philanthropy. CSR, refers to one-off acts of community engagement, such as a company deploying a team of employees to volunteer for a day at a community foodbank. That would be an incredible act of corporate social responsibility, but it isn’t brand advocacy.  Brand advocacy is a longer-term play that’s tied to or the engine of a social, cultural or environmental movement.

Philanthropy is also different from CSR; philanthropy is the financial support of an organisation or project without any specific actionable commitment.

While all three have specific purpose and value, brand advocacy is the most potent when it comes to reputation.  It has a cultural impact within a brand and with external audiences that is deeper, more humane and more compelling than conventional CSR, and consumers are demanding more of it from the brands in which they choose to engage.

Q: How can brands make a smooth transition from product focused communications to value focused?

A: It isn’t a transition so much as moving to product and value based communications.

As marketers, when we look at competitive differentiations in a category, we often look for innovations in products and services. Those are important criteria, but brands should also be looking at how they are differentiating themselves competitively in terms of values and how they are expressing, acting, and communicating those values.  It’s a fascinating supplement to how brands should and could deploy their competitive chops.

Q: How can brands choose which issues or causes they should align with?

A: First and foremost, it needs to be based on brand values, and those values need to be championed by leadership. It’s on them to nurture values internally and externally, and then engage employees in shortlisting how the values connect to a brand advocacy initiative. In today’s context, brand values need to be seen in action both internally and externally, and advocacy helps organizations fulfil this on both fronts, especially with external audiences.

Q: Are there examples of brands that do this really well?

A: There are some very common ones that a lot of marketers talk about, companies like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – they’ve put some very provocative and creative commitments behind their advocacy play when it comes to climate change and sustainability.

However, there are a wide swath of non-household brands that are well-known in their communities and are doing really important work in advancing issues ranging from city bike infrastructure advancements to advocating to get far more diversity and inclusion in municipal politics. Smaller and more local brands are doing this in more of courageous ways than many of the larger brands it many ways.

How does advocacy benefit brands?

Brands now recognize this – it’s part of the push and pull of a brand’s voice. Consumers and prospective employees are increasingly scrutinising the brands with which they engage based on their advocacy commitment. It’s influencing how consumers spend and where employees work. Their intellectual and emotional energy, will go to the brands that they feel are showing true, honest long-term commitment to a movement. Brands have to do it, and if they haven’t, consumers are going to put you on the defensive really quickly. It’s never fun to be on your heels when it comes to advocacy, so don’t do it reactively; get proactive.

Ken Evans is a Managing Partner of APEX PR.  Is your brand looking to leverage or build its brand advocacy? Reach out to Ken at keveans@apexpr.com