We live in a world of growing and extended expectations for brands. The 2016 Edelman Earned Brand study reveals that six in 10 citizens believe doing good should be part of a brand’s DNA, beyond its everyday business and best operations practices. Half agree that brands have more power to solve social ills than governments do. Consumers have given brands a license to inspire social action by raising awareness, fostering public debate, and changing the state of play.

So what happens when brands take a stand?

As part of this year’s study, we explored how consumers reacted when 16 brands got involved in societal debate. We listened to conversations on social media to uncover the impact these “activist” campaigns had on those brands’ relationships with the public, while capturing the influence they had on individuals’ opinions and behaviors in regard to the issue or cause.

What we’ve learned is that when brands successfully behave as change agents, not only do they raise awareness of an issue but they also rally individuals to the cause. They spark a debate, make people think, and enable them to participate and change their attitudes and behaviors. In turn, brands gain a stronger relationship with their consumers based on shared values and actions, and can grow their business as consumers commit to the brand and support it with their wallets.

When PayPal cancelled the opening of an operations centre in North Carolina to protest against transgender discrimination, many consumers stood behind this business decision and this is what we could hear on social media: “Thank you PayPal for standing up against ignorance and discrimination. I have been a PayPal customer for more than 15 years and I will continue to use and recommend PayPal.” —@anonymous, Facebook

When REI* stepped out commercial priorities, it rallied customers and was rewarded: I will undoubtedly #OptOutside for #BlackFriday. I love you @REI.” —@anonymous, Twitter

But it takes more than nerve for a brand to be an activist—it takes thoughtful consideration. Impactful brands pick their battles carefully, either bringing a societal cause to the public eye or making a statement in a polarized debate. Activist brands are:

  • Relevant: Their cause is aligned with consumers’ interests, values and expectations. They care.
  • Authentic: Their cause, and the brand’s point of view on it, align with the brand’s values and business behaviours’.
  • Genuine: Their intentions and motives are clear and honest, with no hidden agenda.
  • Committed: They bring depth and conviction to the discussion, from leadership endorsement to employees’ support.
  • Involved for the long run – They stand their ground and are responsive.

We also found that when brands successfully took a stand, they offered opportunities and resources for individuals to get personally involved. They fostered people’s participation in supporting the cause and enabled action, rallying a movement that offered opportunities to act. They not only shared a consumer’s view, but provided solutions.

Finally, they also returned the love by amplifying the content that consumers created around the issue or cause—they cherished and reinforced the conversation.

When brands take a stand and embrace their societal responsibility, they need to be prepared for what could prove to be a bumpy road. But there are great rewards every step of the way on this new kind of journey with consumers.

Cécile Nathan-Tilloy is the UK & Ireland managing director of Edelman Intelligence.

*Edelman Client