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For Brands To Make An Impact, Partnership Is Paramount

Brands must tackle social issues—but they don’t have to do it alone.

Manisha Mirchandani is a research director at Bloomberg Cities. She formerly advised clients at the Economist Intelligence Unit and is a Long Dash alum.

The events of 2020 have brought into sharp relief consumers’ growing expectations of brands. As they live through the coronavirus pandemic and reckon with systemic racial injustice, consumers are expecting much more of the brands they know so well. It is not enough to only offer convenience or a differentiated product or service anymore—brands must now also play a more profound role in society. 

More than ever, brands are expected to show up and do something to solve social problems. In a June 2020 poll, 80 percent of consumers said this type of action is important for brands to gain or keep their trust. More specifically, most consumers now believe that brands are integral to societal functioning: 62 percent of those polled at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 believed that their country would not make it through COVID-19 without brands playing a critical role to address challenges.

For many brands, contributing to social good can seem like a stretch from their existing capabilities, and one that has clear pitfalls. It is one thing to post on the corporate social media feed in support of #BlackLivesMatter, but another to take action that drives positive change as observed by Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Long Dash client, in a recent interview with Altered. “If you’re going to take these issues on, it’s not because it’s a moment and you think you can do a press statement or a couple of steps and then move on,” she says. “If you’re going to get into it, you have to be absolutely committed that you’re going to do it internally in your organization and externally in the work that you’re doing.”

Consumers are highly sensitive to dissonance between message and reality, and at Long Dash, we advise our clients of the need for corporate action to underpin a brand’s external messaging on societal issues. But driving positive social outcomes is difficult work, and there is rarely a silver bullet solution. Rather than attempt to go at it alone, brands should consider strategic partnerships as a means of rising to the challenge.

New problems, new needs

Traditionally, the responsibility for ensuring societal well-being is the purview of government, not brands. But consumers are now increasingly demanding that brands show up on this front—50 percent of consumers polled in March 2020 said that brands must partner with government and relief agencies to address the COVID-19 crisis to retain or win their trust. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare just how much the public sector has fallen short in this role. A 2019 John Hopkins assessment of global health security capabilities ranked the United States as the country that is most prepared for a pandemic. But when the coronavirus hit the country, many of the institutions that should have kicked in to protect the public failed to do so, with politicization and poor coordination stymying the government response. 

One critical shortcoming has been the public sector’s inability to paint a complete picture of coronavirus testing in the United States, and to share accurate and timely information on it. With no single official source of data, the public has been left to piece together fragments of information to understand how the virus is spreading and the risk posed to their communities. 

Enter one of America’s most enduring brands—The Atlantic, a publication founded 163 years ago to challenge assumptions and pursue the truth. Reporting on the coronavirus, my journalist colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer could not find complete data about the extent of COVID-19 testing in the country. So they compiled the data themselves, and built a spreadsheet to provide compelling evidence on how much testing lagged official projections.

Brands step up

Recognizing the need for better data to protect citizens and inform the pandemic response, they did not stop there. Madrigal and Meyer joined forces with Jeff Hammerbacher, founder and partner at the biotech venture firm Related Sciences, to create the COVID Tracking Project.

An initiative launched from The Atlantic, it compiles data on testing and patient outcomes across the country to form the most complete dataset about COVID-19 in the United States. By all accounts, it has filled a gap left yawning by the public sector in the coronavirus response; the Project’s application programming interface (API), which allows sites and apps to automatically import the dataset, receives two million requests a day.

The COVID Tracking Project is an example of brands stepping up to fill an urgent and unmet societal need. Philanthropy has also played a role in sustaining the Project, with support from organizations such as the Benificus Foundation and the Emerson Collective (which owns The Atlantic). Further, the initiative’s success hinges on a network of hundreds of volunteer data-gatherers, developers, scientists, reporters, designers, and editors to keep the database updated and to disseminate its findings.

Making partnerships work

Building partnerships is difficult at the best of times, but this work is essential to addressing the increasingly complex societal problems that confront us. Pandemics, racial inequality, climate change, and technology disruption are thorny and complicated issues that no single actor can resolve alone. For brands to play an active role in solving these challenges, strategic partnerships are a tool that brand can wield to help them do so in a way that is effective and authentic. The COVID Tracking Project, and other consortiums, offer three lessons for how brands can leverage partnerships to tackle a social problem. 

1) Bring your strengths, stay in your lane

The most successful partnerships optimize the capabilities of each party towards success. In the case of the COVID Tracking Project, each partner has pulled up with unique strengths: The Atlantic brought its investigative reporting and storytelling chops and its value as a platform to a wide audience; as a biotech company, Related Science brought its scientific expertise and understanding of developing data-driven platforms; while philanthropy actors took on the type of financial risk that private-sector or government are typically unable to on pilot initiatives of this type. A clear mapping of capabilities and strengths sets partnerships up for success from the very beginning, and helps partners to resist the temptation of trying to do everything at once.

2) Align on focused and clear goals

The COVID Tracking Project is dedicated to collecting and publishing the data needed to understand the outbreak in the United States. With this clear north star to guide its activities, partners are able to join the alliance with a clear understanding of what they can bring to the table. Further, a focused goal allows for measurement of progress and the setting of concrete objectives that can evolve over time—in this case, the clear success of the initiative against its original objectives allowed for measured expansion. The COVID Tracking Project widened its remit to develop the COVID Racial Data Tracker to gather the most complete race and ethnicity data on COVID-19 in the United States. To meet the need for specialist expertise, it has brought a new partner into the fold, the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research

3) Bring consumers with you, and empower them to contribute  

More than ever before, consumers are expecting brands to show up on purpose to earn their trust. What is really exciting about partnership models is how brands can facilitate a role for consumers to be part of the solution. A volunteer network provides people power needed to collate official data from disparate sources and to analyze and disseminate its findings. In the case of the COVID Tracking Project, not only does this ensure as wide a reach as possible to gather fragmented data, but the initiative has energized a base of individuals who are deeply invested in solving the problem and in the Project’s success.

The power of partnerships

Such partnerships require a great deal of organization and coordination, and it could be tempting for brands to bypass these in favor of donating to a cause or going at it alone. However, the case for strategic partnerships to scale social impact is powerful. Besides the COVID Tracking Project, coalitions such as GAVI—the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private partnership, demonstrate the effectiveness of partnerships when done right.

GAVI has brought together private sector and nonprofit brands, government actors, philanthropy, and multilateral organizations to vaccinate hundreds of millions of children in the world’s poorest countries. With respect to the global pandemic, GAVI is currently coordinating a vaccine initiative that aligns private sector and public health incentives to share risk, pool procurement, and facilitate the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

There are a number of ways that brands can pursue strategic partnership models. Some are formed more organically as brands experiment and innovate to fill gaps in need. Beginning cross-sectoral conversations and engaging with a wider range of actors beyond the traditional scope is a good starting point for brand leaders looking to test the waters on what such partnerships could look like.

There are also a number of long-standing alliances that brands can join to dive into solving specific problems; as well as GAVI, coalitions such as the WePROTECT Global Alliance have brought together dozens of technology companies, civil society organizations, multilateral organizations, and national governments with the goal of ending child sexual exploitation online. Exploring pre-existing alliances may well surface one that matches a brand’s areas of expertise, and their core values. 

Brands don’t necessarily have to engage in large and complex coalitions, but strategic partnerships are an important tool for them to live up to espoused values and contribute to broader societal well-being.

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