A Guide to Social Impact Marketing Through Brand-building

Practical and actionable brand-building steps you can take and an example of a top social impact brand that’s led the game for decades.

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This article is part of a series. Read the previous article here.

Whatever the size of your organization and the marketing budget that you have, you can adopt a brand-building approach to your social impact content and marketing strategy.

Let’s cover some practical and actionable steps you can take for your social impact brand and look at an example of an organization that’s been doing it at the top of the game for decades.

7 Steps Begin Your Brand-building Journey

Step 1: Know Your Values & Culture

If you don’t have a clear sense of what’s authentic for your brand, it’s going to be more difficult to know what marketing activities are supporting brand-building vs. transactional marketing. Determine your core values and find ways to express your internal culture that personalize your brand and make it distinct in your cause area.

Step 2: Understand Your Core Community

You also need to understand your core community. Deeply. If you try to appeal to a broader audience, you’re slipping into a transactional marketing trap. Focus on creating content, messages, and campaigns that speak directly to your bullseye community members and die-hard supporters. 

Step 3: Expand Your Horizons

Let’s be clear. You should absolutely measure engagement, conversion, and other metrics for your campaigns. Branding and Marketing is an art and a science. But don’t get caught in assessing every single post or email or campaign in a silo.

Remember, brand building is the long game. Look at the larger trends and evaluate your marketing as a whole. Think ahead months, not weeks or days. You have to give it a chance to play out before you call it a flop and revert back to short-term tactics. 

Step 4: Market with Empathy

Before you press “post,” or plan your next campaign, take a moment to put yourself in your ideal supporter’s shoes. Would you want to be on the receiving end of whatever it is you’re communicating or creating? Is it providing real, tangible value for your community? Or is it adding more noise to our overflowing content streams and channels?

Concentrate on quality over quantity. If you’re focused on producing scroll-stopping content and experiences that your supporters look forward to receiving, you’re giving them a return on rallying behind your brand.

Step 5: Remember that Brand-Building is Continuous

Every choice you make, every action you take, is either strengthening or diluting your brand message and reputation. More than ever, brands and individuals are pumping out low-effort, transactional content and marketing to feed the content machine. We are entering the era of authenticity, and people will become more discerning than ever around which brands to support and which brands to ignore and forget.

Step 6: Brand-Building is Co-Created by Your Community

Brand-building is not a one-way street. It’s co-created by you and your community of supporters. This is only possible with deep listening, learning, and open and transparent communication with your community. Be willing to accept constructive criticism, remain brutally honest, and develop a learning mindset as an organization. This mindset is critical to the success of brand-building and your organization.

Step 7: Brand-Building Transcends Marketing

Although brand-building as a philosophy should inform your content, campaigns, and marketing strategies and actions, it’s important to remember that true brand building is a result of the actions that you take every day outside of your marketing. Are your choices, investments of time and resources, and real-world decisions supporting the brand you are building? If not, you’re cause marketing quickly becomes inauthentic cause washing. 

Turning the Theoretical into the Practical

Understanding these steps provides you with a foundation for embarking on a marketing and awareness brand-building approach for your organization. But what does this look like in the real world? 

We’re glad you asked.

A Case Study in Effective Brand-building

While the seven steps above are helpful starting points to get your gears turning around how you might rethink your social impact brand strategy. Let's not pretend the brand-building way is the easy way — but the rewards are well worth the effort. 

But what does an actual brand-building approach look like, and how can you build a social impact brand that nurtures meaningful relationships with your community and supporters?

Let’s walk through a really important example of a brand — and more specifically, a particular campaign — that is the quintessential case study of an organization with a relentless commitment to brand-building. 

The Poster Child of Social Impact Brands

This brand, probably not too surprisingly, is Patagonia. It’s a go-to example. But, for good reason. 

Patagonia is one of the best examples of an organization committed to playing the long-term brand-building game. 

From the beginning, Patagonia has focused on sustainability in all meanings of the word. Skipping short term gains to live by their founding values, they’re almost rebellious in their commitment to pioneering new approaches in the fashion and apparel industry. An industry notorious for wasteful practices and unapologetic transactional marketing. 

Patagonia has many different brand-building strategies they’ve used and continue to use to power a die-hard, maybe even cult-like, level of support. 

We could talk about their worn wear program, which allows customers to repair, trade-in, or buy used Patagonia gear to help reduce the amount of clothing going to the landfill. Or their Patagonia Provisions product line, which produces sustainable adventure-ready foods to fuel your next big outdoor expedition. Or their broader commitment to sustainability, sourcing, inventing, and championing high quality, lasting products that hold up in everyday life and the natural elements. 

But the specific campaign we want to cover is an even better example. And it’s probably one of the most brilliant marketing campaigns of our modern era. 

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Don’t Buy This Jacket.

In 2011, Patagonia placed a full page ad in the New York Times. The ad featured a simple photo of a Patagonia jacket covering the entire page, crowned by a provocative headline that read, “Don’t buy this Jacket.” 

The brilliance of this campaign is that it’s so perfectly and authentically aligned with their values and culture as a brand. It boldly and confidently communicates a message that defies transactional marketing norms. 

And the chef’s kiss? The “Don’t buy this Jacket.” ad ran on Black Friday, which might as well be a transactional marketing holiday. 

You might be thinking this was just a smart PR move by Patagonia. And it was a smart PR move. In fact, sales from the campaign outperformed their baseline performance by 30%. 

So did the campaign actually backfire in its strategy to reduce consumption? 

It would have, if Patagonia didn’t back this campaign up with The Common Threads Initiative, a program that spearheaded much of the impressive improvements in sustainability efforts that Patagonia continues to invest in to this day. 

It’s precisely because they had a track record of authentic and measurable impact supported by a strong brand reputation that we can call this campaign a success by all measures and not just purposeful marketing hype.

Build You Brand on Authentic & Measurable Real-world Actions

While many social impact organizations aren’t in a position to market like Patagonia, their example showcases how strategic brand-building, approached and applied consistently and creatively, outperforms transactional marketing over the long term and wins the hearts and minds of their community.

The good news? Any social impact organization can do strategic brand-building — including yours.

The brand-building way is not for the faint of heart. But for social impact leaders and organizations with courage and the creativity to commit to playing the long game, the rewards can include: 

  • A passionate, dedicated, and supportive community,
  • A path to sustainable revenue, and; 
  • An expanded awareness through brand recognition that goes beyond your cause area geographic location

At the end of the day, brand-building is just a better — and more rewarding — game to play. 

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