How Brands Can Authentically Engage Around Social Issues

There’s no such thing as a topic that can’t be discussed in a brand ad, if the execution feels thoughtful and authentic. Heineken reminded us of that again last week, when their UK team released “Worlds Apart.”

The Heineken ad/social experiment paired three sets of strangers with opposing opinions on feminism, climate change, or transgender rights, and asked them to assemble furniture with zero context. Only after bonding was it revealed through a pre-recorded interview that they had disagreements.

Given the option to either leave or hash out their differences over a beer, all chose to stay, and found what they had in common was much greater and more important than their differences.

The "Worlds Apart" ad has already racked up 6.7 millions views on YouTube alone, and received critical acclaim. Media critics labeled the ad “powerful,” praised it for taking a strong position to "be inspired by,” feeling the spot "gets to the heart of political engagement in a straightforward way.”     



What did Heineken get right about approaching social issues? While every campaign is different, "Worlds Apart" adheres to three specific best practices for social-cause ads. By considering these guidelines, marketers can greatly increase the likelihood of creating a successful brand campaign around a social cause:

Sell The Cause, Not The Product

What some of the most successful cause-related brand ads have in common is what’s absent. In "Worlds Apart," it takes two minutes and 45 seconds before a bottle of Heineken even appears and no one discusses the brand onscreen.

Similarly, the Always #LikeAGirl ad which advocated for a more positive connotation around the phrase “Like A Girl” has been viewed over 63 million times on YouTube alone and the brand name Always doesn’t appear on screen until 90 seconds into the ad with their product never appearing.

84 Lumber ad from Super Bowl LI speaking about compassionate immigration. And though the 84 Lumber logo just appeared briefly at the end, 6 million people still tried to view Part 2 of the ad online in the hour after the spot first aired.

Brands that adapt the strategy of selling a social cause and position themselves as thought leaders around that specific cause, create campaigns that feel more authentic and empathetic.

Use Real People 

Nothing makes a cause more relatable than sharing the journey or struggle of a real person. For instance, seeing Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to make a U.S. national team on his bicycle in the 2016 Nike ad “Unlimited Courage” was an authentic and impactful moment.

For example, when the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign shows the reactions of women seeing portraits of themselves, based on descriptions from a stranger, compared to their own self-image, that was a moment.

The campaign was viewed nearly 135 million times in 2013, won the Titanium Grand Prix award at Cannes Lions and it’s message that women are too critical of their own appearance wouldn’t have connected nearly as much, without the anchor of reality. Often the most effective way of getting representation right is focusing on real people having real moments.

Don’t Be A Cause Tourist 

The "Worlds Apart "spot is part of larger campaign Heineken is planning with The Human Library, a not-for-profit organization focused on challenge stereotypes, including  a Facebook Chatbot connecting people from diverse backgrounds and sessions promoting internal dialogue among employees.

For brands to stand out around an issue, there needs to be a larger commitment than just a one-off ad. For instance, the Kenneth Cole brand has a long history of speaking to AIDS awareness; dating back to 1986; when it created a PSA campaign reading: “For the future of our children... Support the American Foundation for AIDS Research. We do.”

In all of these instances, the overriding lesson is be empathetic, authentic and invested. Speaking to a social cause should be viewed as a long-term commitment for a brand, where the issue is front and center, with real people representing the communities being discussed onscreen as much as possible.

Brand activism is a valuable way to give back to the community and while there are risks around inauthentic engagements, when done right, it can elevate a brand as an important part of the cultural conversation. 

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