How brands can effectively step up during the shutdown

Berlin Cameron's St. Pierre outlines how marketers can take real action, rather than just taking to Twitter.

Another week has passed with federal workers and the nation suffering through the government shutdown. While there has been little progress in Washington, we have seen a range of companies step up to provide support during this trying time.

Their efforts are taking many forms, and with mixed results. Today’s consumers value purpose-driven brands, so it’s crucial that marketers don’t just express their views, but that they do so in authentic, relevant and impactful ways. It’s a worthwhile cause to stand up for the shutdown but it’s also important that brands understand that not every method is created equal. The following is a breakdown of how brands are stepping up during the shutdown to create impact, what works and what doesn’t.

Using your voice

Perhaps the most common approach to fight the shutdown is brands using their strength in major media channels to encourage public conversation as well as active participation in a solution. Two outdoor companies leading the charge include The North Face, which called for donations to support national parks and REI who has urged people to volunteer at national parks. Both of these companies used their voice to align with the cause as well as offer a solution that’s also part of their brand values. If a brand chooses to join the conversation, it’s important the message connects the brand to the issue and offers a solution to the problem.  Without a more direct call-to-action, brands’ reactions can be perceived as adding noise to this already chaotic situation. Burger King’s "hamberder" tweet, for example, only added fuel to the fire and Columbia Sportswear’s CEO statement criticizing the shutdown, didn’t effectively communicate a solution. While speaking out in this way is still noble, the message will never appear as strong without that crucial call to action.

Using your wallet

Brands are also stepping up by offering financial support to those affected by the shutdown.  While this may seem like an obvious approach, few brands actually put their money where their mouth is, but those who do send a clear message to consumers about their priorities and commitment to the cause.  In particular, wireless service providers and financial service institutions are actively engaged by helping furloughed workers by waiving fees, developing flexible payment plans and even allowing skipped payments.  With special 800-number customer service lines, eligible individuals can discuss options and customize personal payment plans.  REI, in addition to their call for volunteers, also took a financial stand with a promise to donate $250k to restoration efforts in national parks. The most impressive contributor to the cause is USAA.  The company stands apart by donating $15 million to support the Coast Guard, which is currently the only military branch affected by the shutdown.  This contribution perfectly reinforces their deep connection with our country’s military audience and their families, and propels their already-high favorability far beyond their core audience.

Using your product

Lastly, brands are engaging in very tangible ways by putting their product at the center of the solution. They support those affected and make a strong statement to those watching, ultimately creating an impactful experience and strong favorability towards their brand.  Restaurants and grocery stores are the main players here.  For example, Sweetgreen and Whole Foods’ D.C locations are offering free meals to federal workers across all their stores.  On January 16th, Kraft opened an experiential pop up grocery store that they call "Kraft now pay later", where government employees are offered free Kraft products to feed themselves and their families. Moreover, in an effort to offer even more support, Kraft has encouraged other brands to offer their products within the Kraft pop up.  Using the very products that fuel their business to fuel the cause is both meaningful and smart, and there are probably more brands that could be contributing.

As things have unfolded in the past few weeks, brands that choose to be a part of the solution rather than sitting on the sidelines should be applauded.  However, before deciding if your brand should step up during this shutdown (or the next public or social issue), be sure the activation is authentic to the brand’s core values, relevant to the issue at hand and impactful towards finding a solution.  After all, whether brands are using their voice, their wallet, or their products, focusing on the greater good should be the ultimate goal that unites these efforts.

Anne St. Pierre is Berlin Cameron’s group strategy director.

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