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These days, it’s common for companies to publicly state what they consider their core values. In times of social upheaval or focus on hot-button issues, big brands, mom-and-pop shops and all businesses in between seem compelled to announce what they stand for, almost as an automatic response. However, while a generational shift is driving demand for social responsibility from companies, from a marketing standpoint, some businesses are struggling to keep pace.

“Millennials really are at the base of it,” says Julie Koester, founder, managing partner and president of Naples-based marketing firm Dragon Horse Agency. “[Previous generations] were passive recipients of marketing. And if you had an opinion about it, you just thought it and you carried on. You’ve made the decision about it. You liked it or disliked it. Millennials are a generation of opinionated skeptics who are very conversational and have access to platforms that have never existed (such as Facebook or Twitter). They are no longer willing to be passive recipients of information, which is a huge shift in the industry.” 

Traditionally, marketers have emphasized the unique selling proposition, or USP, of a brand or product. However, while today’s consumers still want to know what makes a brand’s goods or services superior to its competition, they also want to trust that brand to be a socially responsible company. But, for many businesses, selling the promise of their USP while also establishing brand trust means walking a very fine line.

“I think, honestly, this is something that everyone should have been doing all along. And the good companies were doing it. They just may not have been telling their story and been so up-front about it,” says Samantha Scott, APR, president of Pushing the Envelope, a Fort Myers-based marketing and public relations agency. “But I also think there’s another side to it: If you commoditize it, then it will do more damage to your brand than good. There’s a tactful way to tell your story about being socially responsible, and being both profitable as well as balancing the best interests of society. If you do it and say, ‘Look at me, look at me,’ that’s not going to work.”

While some businesses seem to think it’s as simple as a few socially relevant posts on Twitter or Facebook, actually being a socially responsible company and a trustworthy brand isn’t something that will happen overnight. In fact, Scott said, in today’s environment, marketers have to work even harder to cut through all the noise in order to reach an already jaded audience.

“The very first thing I would do, if I was counseling a company, is say: ‘What do you stand for and who are you?’ If you can’t define that, that’s the very first thing you have to do—and you have to get that clear,” she says. “From there … make sure that everyone is on the same page internally and is singing the same song before you go making this public and asking others to join in on the song with you, so you’re all in the same key. In terms of continuing that and really establishing trust with consumers, honesty and integrity is fundamental.”

Given how quickly things can change in the digital age, it remains to be seen whether the push for social responsibility and brand trust will simply be a trend or an ongoing part of the business landscape. But Scott and Koester agreed that, moving forward, companies should continue striving to be transparent and trustworthy for reasons that go beyond a bigger bottom line.

“We’re all shorting out because everybody’s getting yelled at constantly,” Koester says. “This whole conversation, if you get to a 100,000-foot level of it, is really about companies functioning as better beings of our existence and making good choices on behalf of the company for the benefit of the consumer. We need to be better to our employees. We need to be accommodating for things that are not creating issues, but maybe creating a new way of doing something which can lead to opportunity. It may take more time, or you have to think a few more seconds ahead about it, (but) some of those things are really worth it and valuable because of the learning that can come from them.” 

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