How Retailers Can Tackle Social Issues in 2019

0aaaMarissa Tarleton RetailMeNot

Last year, retail marketers saw a huge shift in the way brands relate to consumers. With Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign as a prominent example, more brands spoke out on hot-button issues — through their actions, through their content, through their messaging.

Amid today’s deep social divisions, voicing beliefs that will inevitably alienate some shoppers might feel risky. However, the greater risk for retailers lies in staying silent.

Consumers who feel a pull toward a retailer that aligns with their values and beliefs will often become more loyal, passionate brand ambassadors. A majority of shoppers will discuss and recommend retailers to their friends based on brand beliefs or even spend more money with a retailer because they believe in its core values.


Two-thirds of consumers think it’s important for retailers to take stands on issues, according to a survey by Sprout Social. So it’s no wonder that an additional study of 5,000 consumers found that 87% of retailers say taking a stand on social issues is worth the risk, and that failing to do so can actually hurt the bottom line.

To navigate this new landscape, I’ve outlined three things marketers can do to better understand and respond to consumers’ evolving expectations.

Know Your Brand

Taking a stand accomplishes the most, for your cause and for the bottom line, when your messaging feels true to what consumers already know about you as a retailer.

You don’t necessarily have to take a fierce stance on a current issues to make a difference. Building your values into your daily operations and advertising can be equally as effective.

Everlane made its mark as a brand by making its ethical business practices — like auditing the factories it works with on labor and environmental factors — an integral part of its identity.

By establishing its character around fair and just operations and making its actions publically known, Everlane enabled its customers to associate the brand with fair business practices.

Inspire Action

Have you found an issue that aligns with your values? Consumers want to hear about it. What’s more, they want you to give them something to do about it. A powerful example of this came during the recent government shutdown, when limited staffing led to unsupervised visitors damaging national parks. REI was among the outdoor brands speaking out, but the co-op also took things a step further by encouraging its customers to volunteer to clean up the parks.

Having a call to action that connects with your values, your product offerings and the interests of your audience leads to authentic and effective marketing materials. By offering more than just words of support, brands can demonstrate their commitment to their causes and their shoppers.

Don’t Go Overboard

Yes, customers are open to hearing about your brand’s social stances or causes you care about. But they don’t want those things to become your entire message.

Savvy retailers, like Old Navy, are finding ways to integrate their causes into their overall messaging. Recent posts on Old Navy’s Facebook page don’t explicitly talk about diversity and inclusion, a key value of the brand, but the message comes through thanks to the choice of models and even some of the clothing featured. When you follow this approach, consumers are not overwhelmed by your social activism, but are clear on your core values and beliefs.

Stepping into the fray on social issues isn’t easy. It requires retailers to know what they stand for and what values they share with customers. And it means making those messages a natural part of your conversation with fans. Sometimes it can bring pushback or even controversy. But we’re seeing more and more that the rewards — including a deeper connection with customers, a stronger brand, a chance to make real impact and even a bump in sales — are worth it.


Marissa Tarleton is the CEO of RetailMeNot, Inc. Tarleton joined RetailMeNot in 2015 as CMO and helped deliver significant growth in consumer acquisition while also building new revenue streams for RetailMeNot. Tarleton was named a top 50 CMO on the inaugural Forbes CMO Next list in 2018 due to her thought leadership in data-driven mobile marketing. She was appointed CEO in January of 2019. Prior to RetailMeNot, Tarleton led marketing for Dell Inc.’s North America Consumer and Small Business organization. 

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