Creativity Does Not Thrive in Fear—How Marketers Can Drive Real-World Change

Going beyond awareness around social issues to make tangible change

It’s a consequential time to be a brand. Every day, social, political and economic issues are creating flashpoints in culture that provoke opposing opinions and concerns. And businesses are feeling the effects: 64% of people would either buy from a brand or boycott it, solely because of its position on a social issue.

Most brands view this reality in terms of risk, and all too often overlook that there’s opportunity there too. When brands engage with important social issues in insightful ways that drive action, they can become agents of change themselves and put themselves in a position of strength and influence.

I recently had the privilege of moderating a panel at Advertising Week New York, where I talked with leaders from different backgrounds and disciplines about how creativity—and the companies and organizations who wield it—is helping move the needle on socially entrenched issues in ways that have never been achieved. The conversation coalesced around the idea that brands who want to be agents of change must first consider where they can credibly make an impact and three common themes emerged.

Follow the data

Data can present evidence of an issue for a brand to tackle as well as help inform the specifics of a campaign. Each of the panelists I had a chance to talk with offered stories about a specific piece of data or research insight that helped inspire their campaign.

Ad Council chief campaign development officer Michelle Hillman talked about learning that 70 million Americans are considered “Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs)” meaning they possess skills employers desire, but lack the traditional educational experience that many employers set as table stakes. This shuts nearly 50% of our overall workforce out of opportunities to advance their careers and advance economically. From there, the ‘Tear the Paper Ceiling’ campaign was born, raising awareness around the issue of strict degree requirements for employment.

For Zakiya Thomas, president and CEO of the ERA Coalition, it was that 80% of Americans don’t realize that equal rights are not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, as they are in many countries. Against the backdrop of the Dobbs decision, it’s a stark reminder that our rights are something that cannot be taken for granted, and this insight led to ‘WOMAN Corp.’ The campaign shined a light on the fact that corporations have more rights in the U.S. than women do by creating a “corporation” called WOMAN Corp.

My colleague Kristie Pope, Ogilvy D.C. executive creative director, pointed out that Dove’s research found that Black women are 80% more likely than white women to agree with the statement, “I have to change my hair from its natural state to fit in at the office.” On top of that, victims of race-based hair discrimination remained unprotected by law, a fact very near and dear to both of us as Black female leaders. This sparked #BlackHairIsProfessional and The CROWN Act.

All of these insights create an opportunity, to show that various vacuums exist that brands and marketers can step into and utilize creativity to enact change.

Understand the human experiences of those affected

Data alone won’t make a campaign resonate. That’s why it’s also crucial that brands truly understand the human experience of those who bear the brunt of the injustice.

“STARs were at the center of our process from day one,” Hillman said about ‘Tear the Paper Ceiling.’ For brands and marketers, it’s crucial not only to ground a campaign by speaking with people outside your own walls but to center and empower your own people who are part of the communities being affected.

In the case of Dove, that very qualitative data point inspired the campaign #BlackHairIsProfessional, which Pope helped lead. “It’s not every day you get an opportunity to do impactful work for a community you’re a part of,” Pope said on the panel.

Too often, brands and marketers incorporate what Pope referred to as “a check-box system” where a person or two who represents the community is brought in, an approach that will lead the campaign to ultimately fail. For the work on #BlackHairIsProfessional, the personal became the campaign for Pope and other Black women who helped lead the work, as they brought their own stories to the table.

In these examples, real-world data points and insights, combined with centering the people who can bring their own personal stories to the effort, helped lead to campaigns that resonated.

That emotional, human approach underpinned the ERA Coalition’s campaign ‘WOMAN Corp.’ By putting individual women’s rights under the guise of a corporation, the campaign slyly highlights the hypocrisy of how rights are defended. With 80% of people unaware that equal rights are not enshrined in the Constitution, there was ample opportunity to reach media-savvy people of voting age, who can advocate for change through the tangible actions that the campaign suggests.

Dove’s “#BlackHairIsProfessional” campaign used side-by-side imagery of Black women’s natural hair juxtaposed with the hair they needed to change to be accepted in the work world. This again shows how putting a human face to the problem helps create that critical emotional connection when trying to inspire people to act for change.

But the real shift comes when the aim is to change policy. #BlackHairIsProfessional is part of Dove’s overall support for The CROWN Act, which seeks to make race-based hair discrimination illegal. The CROWN Act is now law in 24 U.S. states and, though it has stalled in the U.S. Senate, it was passed by the House of Representatives.

Lead with creative bravery and conscience

Creativity doesn’t thrive in fear, suffocation, or discrimination. What may be truer is that change doesn’t take place in those conditions either.

Ultimately, companies and organizations that want to address social issues and actually drive change need to pave the way for creativity—and change—to thrive. That means being willing to break down their own barriers and biases. It means centering the people and the communities at the heart of the issue you want to address so that authenticity as opposed to insertion will be what mobilizes support. It also means operating from a place of creative bravery and conscience.

When 64% of consumers will take a stance on your brand without a second thought, not taking a stance on your own business values and ability to create impact is perhaps the greatest risk of all.