How Agencies Are Meeting Millennials’ Demand for Socially Responsible Marketing

Doing some good is good for business

Headshot of Katie Richards

Millennials will rally behind causes they care about—and will stand behind a brand that does the same. As Omnicom Group's Cone Communications shows, 70 percent will spend more on brands that support causes—and with millennials representing $2.45 trillion in spending power, the subject of corporate social responsibility carries an unexpected level of clout.

As big brands such as Clif Bar, Nike and Google incorporated CSR into their business models, an agency cottage industry has sprung up to service them, focusing on socially responsible marketing. Even some larger shops took note—72andSunny, for example, launched its brand citizenship initiative this year.

"Brands started saying we can't continue to have this approach to social responsibility … doing something in the margins. We have to embed it deeply into the business," said Kirk Souder, who along with Sebastian Buck, co-founded Enso.

They saw an opportunity for their smaller outfit to work with a big brand like Google if they honed their efforts in the field of CSR. The agency has since worked with Google Fiber, Google News Lab and Google Small Business, creating campaigns to help the brand scale its business while hoping to better the world.

Specialized shops have quickly come to find that as brands increasingly look to give back, there is a sustainable business model for CSR-focused agencies.

"We were tentative about putting [CSR] out there as our key differentiator, but now it has become a viable business opportunity for us," said Rebecca Armstrong, managing director of North. "There is enough to serve a business, and that happened in large part from the advent of millennials and the evolution of social media."

The Portland, Ore.-based shop works with Pacific Foods, Clif Bar and Columbia Sportswear. North creates social-media-driven campaigns targeting millennials, who according to Cone Communications, are 66 percent more likely to engage with brands on social media to discuss social responsibility issues.

For other shops like Boulder, Colo.-based agency School—which counts Nike, Skullcandy and TiVo as clients—a major challenge has been helping brands understand the difference between rallying behind a cause and standing for a purpose. Brands often want to randomly pick a cause even if they don't truly believe in it. Millennials will see right through that, said School CEO Max Lenderman. He believes that if brands let an agency help them find the right mission to back, they'll be able to capture millennial eyeballs and build long-standing relationships.

"Agencies have to be at the forefront of culture; we have to know what's coming before it comes," said Lenderman. "We saw the potential of what purpose can mean and made it work for us."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ktjrichards Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.