Consumer expectations are changing: Not only do shoppers today expect curbside pickup, next-day delivery, and multiple payment options, but they’re increasingly looking to brands to stand for something. Whether a business takes a stance on a political issue, prioritizes environmentally friendly practices, or guarantees fair labor for its workers, consumers are watching. 

Brands voicing support for a cause isn’t new—The New York Times wrote about these “point-of-purchase politics” in 1992—but the availability of the internet and social media means that more people are taking notice. And these shoppers are valuable: A 2020 study found that consumers are four times more likely to purchase something from a company they see as having a strong purpose. They’re even more likely to be brand advocates and recommend the business to others.

On the other side of the coin, a third of all consumers will stop buying their preferred products if they lose trust in the brand’s mission. Sellers and retailers looking to navigate this environment need to find the perfect balance between not doing enough for a cause and going too far. Sounds easy, right?  

One thing’s clear: The stakes are high for businesses today. How do you reel in shoppers who are willing to spend more on brands that align with their values without losing your loyal customers? Check out our steps below.

Consider Your Audience

1. Consider your audience

First things first: Think about who you want to reach and who your current customers are. Younger shoppers (ages 18-34), Black, and Hispanic consumers are more likely to expect brands to take a stance on social justice issues, according to recent research. If these groups match your target demographic, you should feel more comfortable aligning to a cause, but tread carefully.

As the largest generation in the U.S., millennials have substantial buying power. But they and their younger Gen-Z peers have high expectations of brand accountability and authenticity. They can spot a phony a mile away, so don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk. They’re also more likely to call out a business for perceived wrongdoing.

And don’t count yourself out if you mainly serve older consumers. You might be surprised to learn that 81% of Gen-X consumers, 77% of Baby Boomers, and 73% of those aged 74+ said they would act in support of a purposeful brand. Plus, members of this audience are less likely to react negatively in response to a brand doing something they disagree with.

Businesses doing it right

2. Check out businesses doing it right

Look around your community, find competitors, browse your LinkedIn feed, and read the news to find purpose-driven brands to inspire your business. Maybe you respect Ben & Jerry’s for the way they combine humor and social justice. Maybe you want to take a page out of Patagonia’s book and create long-lasting products to combat fast fashion. Or maybe you’d like to use more environmentally friendly ingredients and packaging like Seventh Generation. No matter your focus, find a brand to look up to that gets the wheels turning on how you can improve your own business.

Purpose audit

3. Take a “purpose audit” of your business

Now that you have some inspiration, think about where your business can improve. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to do everything, but small changes are better than nothing at all. Don’t know where to start? Here are a few ideas:

  • Follow your supply chain. Do you know who’s making your products? Do you know how they’re treated?
  • Figure out your business’s environmental footprint with an online calculator. Learn about some ways to make your business more sustainable
  • Look at your brand’s marketing imagery and messages. Are you incorporating representations of all people? Are you avoiding stereotypes?
Organizations to Join

4. Look into organizations to join

Overwhelmed already? Don’t worry, you don’t have to start from scratch. There are many organizations businesses can join that will point them in the right direction. Consider one of these groups, or look for one in your community:

  • B Corps: “Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
  • 1% for the Planet: “Businesses that join 1% for the Planet commit to giving 1% of gross sales each year to environmental causes.”
  • Fair Trade USA: “Fair trade is a global movement made up of a diverse network of producers, companies, consumers, advocates, and organizations putting people and planet first.”
  • Better Business Bureau: “In a market saturated with companies vying for customers, BBB Accreditation gives consumers confidence that they’re dealing with an ethical and vetted business.”

If you’re looking for some direction on how to align your business, let someone else do the work for you. Joining a reputable organization will help you avoid getting lost in a sea of research.

Weigh the costs fairly

5. Weigh the costs fairly and honestly

If you’ve gotten this far and are thinking, “That all sounds great, but how can I afford it?” that’s a fair question. Small and mid-sized businesses already have a lot of expenses to worry about. But don’t underestimate the risk of not taking a stance. Small changes in your business can make a great impact, whether that’s lessening your environmental footprint or improving the working conditions of your employees. How much is that worth to you?

As more and more people begin to value a brand’s purpose in their shopping decisions, consider the long-term benefits of tapping into this audience of loyal customers. Let’s face it: Millennials and Gen-Zers are just going to get older and (presumably) have more money to spend, so these consumers will soon be even more highly valued than they are now.

Plus, Brad Fay of Engagement Labs says that small businesses are more well-suited to align themselves with a cause than bigger brands. Because their audiences are smaller and more niche, smaller companies can more easily create customer advocacy and brand loyalty when taking a stance.

Align your brand to a cause

6. Align your brand to a cause, but make sure it’s authentic

Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to commit your brand to a purpose. Start small, and start with something genuine. You’ll have a greater chance at success if you focus on doing one thing well instead of throwing your support behind every cause under the sun. 

Do the work behind the scenes first so that when you do end up marketing your stance, it holds up to critique. Today’s consumers aren’t easily fooled by a pithy tweet—they want support backed up by real action. That means focusing on doing rather than saying so you don’t end up in hot water.

Keep growing, learning, and adapting

7. Keep growing, learning, and adapting

Consumer behaviors and expectations change. Be willing to adapt, but also recognize what you won’t change for. Put your company’s purpose and mission statement in writing to keep everyone on the same page. Listen to your customers and to the people on your team and be receptive to their feedback.

Stay informed by keeping a pulse on industry news and local politics so you know when relevant issues are up for debate. Educate yourself by reading about the causes you care about, listening to other business owners, and watching documentaries. Build a community of like-minded business leaders who can join you as advocates.

By guest contributor Leah Allen-Manning