Dare to engage with what matters to your audience.

Jim Joseph

Global President, Burson Cohn & Wolfe

I started my career in brand management at Johnson & Johnson, a classic packaged goods marketing organization within a top pharmaceutical company. My first assignment was on Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. I was twenty-six years old and I’d never held a baby in my life. I was very low on the learning curve.

Johnson & Johnson was respectfully a conservative company at the time, as were many, and we followed a classic marketing approach that was driven by insights and fueled by creativity. We lived and died by our advertising.

We typically targeted new moms and, in fact, my thinking was considered radical when I suggested we should consider dad in the equation.

Back in the day, we would never comment on a social or political issue. No way, no how. Why would we risk alienating a portion of our consumer base? Back then, even the slightest move sparked a boycott and we were terrified of the backlash. When I took over the marketing lead for Clean & Clear, we were the first Johnson & Johnson brand to advertise on MTV. Several activist groups threatened to boycott. I argued that we were merely reaching our target audience of teenage girls on an entertainment property that they frequented. That was about as far as I could push it.

We never entered politics, we stayed clear of religion and social issues were considered privacy issues. Going anywhere near any of that was taboo.

My how things have changed! Blame it on the digital revolution, blame it on the millennials, blame it on social media, blame it on brands becoming more active in communities. I’ll take all of the above.

Brands are now breaking taboos and taking a stand on social issues that matter. “Matter” is the operative word here. From gun control to women’s health to tax reform to marriage equality to transgender equality to pay equality, brands are speaking up for the first time ever.

They partly have no choice. Funny, I felt like I had no choice back in the day either. Consumers now want to know where a brand stands on issues that matter to them. There’s that “matter” word again. Consumers are looking for brands to make an impact, a positive impact, on the world. On their world. Their world matters to them and they demand that it matters to their chosen brands as well. Matter.

Patagonia is suing the government over the protection of public lands. Nike is supporting its athletes in their personal passions, be it social or otherwise. Dick’s Sporting Goods changed its policies about gun sales after yet another mass shooting. Starbucks is working to address racial bias.

These brands know what matters to their consumers, so they are taking matters into their own hands to have an impact. We’ve never seen this before. It’s always been taboo.

But not every brand should take a stand on every issue. As a brand manager, how do you know where to go?

Find out what matters.

Look to your consumers, your customers, your employees and any other constituents that matter to you and find out what matters to them. Talk to them, follow their social channels, discover their influencers and uncover their concerns.



If they are concerned about a particular issue, then you should be too. I would encourage you to take some meaningful action. Keep in mind it doesn’t always have to be controversial. To this day, Johnson & Johnson supports careers in nursing because nurses are central to the care in healthcare. NYU grants free tuition to its medical studies to keep the pipeline of medical professionals robust. Countless brands and organizations are working to close the pay gap. Not a lot of controversy in any of those issues, only opportunities for brands to bring about change that matters.

You also don’t have to publicly take a stand either.

Understanding a social issue and being conscious about its importance may be all you need to do. Understanding what’s important can help shape your overall programming, even if it doesn’t include taking a stand.

Even just acknowledging that it matters can take a brand a long way. Even just acknowledging the issues may be enough for your business. Certainly that can’t be taboo anymore.