Brands are increasingly realising that they cannot be bystanders as issues of social importance (such as LGBTQ equality) emerge. Consumers, particularly millennials, tend to vote for causes through their wallets. ‘Conscious consumerism’ is in vogue, where consumers expect both quality and belief in certain values to purchase and endorse a brand. But how are brands responding to this trend?

Procter & Gamble’s Ariel launched a highly successful and noteworthy ‘Share the Load’ campaign in 2015, advocating gender equality and highlighting laundry as a chore that should not solely be a woman’s prerogative. However, not all cause-related campaigns enjoy a positive reception. Hindustan Unilever Ltd found itself in the middle of a storm twice this year; first for its Red Label ad highlighting the abandonment of the elderly at the Kumbh Mela which was considered showing the religious festival in bad light. The second time, its detergent brand Surf Excel’s Holi ad sparked controversy, leading to calls for the brand’s boycott. While some praised the brand for promoting religious harmony, other found it to once again hurt religious sentiments.

Internationally too, the seemingly well-intentioned Gillette campaign on ‘toxic masculinity’ ended up causing a stir as some believed the brand was monetising on the #MeToo movement, while others felt all men were being criticised for the condemnable actions of a few.

Cause-based advertising campaigns are risky endeavours. The upside includes establishing a deeper connect with the public, giving rise to loyal consumers, while the downside is on being labelled ‘offensive’, losing potential and current consumer base. For example, Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign starring NFL player-turned-political activist Colin Kaepernick, though polarising, was a resounding success. Not only did the advertisement sweep the Emmy awards, it also led to a 5 per cent increase in Nike’s stocks.

Beyond the bottomline, such campaigns can also push the envelope on developing societal thought. Hence it becomes critical to understand the factors influencing responses to cause-based advertisement. We conducted a survey with 367 students at IIM-Ahmedabad on this topic.

Think positive

The advertisement’s believability and the nature of emotional response it may evoke are the strongest drivers of a favourable attitude toward cause-based campaigns. A cause-based advertisement that seems reasonable, convincing and authentic leads to a positive attitude toward the brand, and eventually the product’s sales. In addition, ads that stimulate a positive emotional response (feelings of happiness and hopefulness) lead to similar outcomes.

However, saddening, upsetting, and angering (negative) emotions result in weakening a consumer’s attitude toward the advertisement. Prior studies also suggest that ads that arouse feelings of guilt can lead to a process of self-protection and viewers dissociate themselves from such communication. Thus, the difference in the reception of Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad — resting the blame on men and their upbringing — versus Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign — uplifting and motivating — can possibly be explained by the negative and positive emotions they evoked respectively.

Surprisingly, brand familiarity played little to no role in driving the viewers’ attitude towards the ad. This implies that newer players can also reap the benefits of conscious consumerism. However, a word of caution: our study found that the viewers’ perception of connection between the cause and the brand to be important. Merely taking up a cause is not enough; it must be closely tied with the brand identity.

Be ready to defend

When it comes to these advertisements, often the group-think of social media is enough to doom the campaign. A small group of vocal dissenters can poison the well, creating a bandwagon effect that could prove fatal for the brand. We found that negative conversations about an ad led to a negative opinion toward it, while positive conversations did not improve the attitude.

This shows the need for a defence strategy in case the conversations start to turn adverse. The Red Label-Kumbh Mela backlash demonstrated this, where a poorly-worded tweet shaped the entire narrative around the campaign.

The careful tiptoeing demanded by cause-based advertisements may not be every brand’s cup of tea. If brands do dare to tread down this path, they will require careful deliberation on the elements that make such a campaign successful. The ad should be emotionally positive, authentic and convincing.

Further, the brand managers should be watchful of the social media narrative. It is advisable to cautiously extend these findings to a larger sample; nevertheless, we consider this to as an important step towards understanding cause-based marketing in India.

Bakshi and Bansal are second-year MBA students and Vijayalakshmi is an Assistant Professor in Marketing at IIM-Ahmedabad.