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The Coming of Age of Social Impact Marketing

It’s redeeming to see a wave of corporate brands, professional sports teams and mainstream media outlets embrace the wide array of social causes amplified due to the varied crises humanity is currently experiencing.

Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, gender equality, environmental action or social media advertising scrutiny, leaders within some of the country’s most prominent brands have become more aware of these issues and the overwhelming public support that has developed in favor of social evolution and human rights.


This movement needs to continue to grow as these powerful companies and cultural drivers make a huge impact on the collective public mindset and serve to bring people along the path to understanding and accepting the need to adapt.

There is a vital role here for corporate marketing—actually it’s more of a responsibility, and one that generates a real return on investment. Companies that engage in relevant and authentic social impact marketing will establish their audience for years or even generations to come. Those that resist do so at their own peril.

There are many ways that brands, including major league sports, entertainment and media, can support these vital social causes. They include adjusting ad spending, instituting effective HR policies and employee volunteerism programs, shifting funds away from lobbying and directly supporting organizations committed to facilitating change, supporting human rights and advancing our collective interests.


As a basis for my position, I draw from extensive experience developing and activating brand-driven community relations programs that genuinely address social needs, directly helping underserved communities while elevating brand image and reputation. The brand for which I conducted some of the best community engagement work, PG&E, is now suffering from major fiscal challenges but benefitted greatly by significantly supporting communities served. Company leadership personally connected to community leaders then shared program outcomes with the public to help generate additional support for social impact community organizations.

We were effective in partnering with professional sports teams then using the benefits received to serve community. One of our best such partners was the Golden State Warriors, a great example of a truly generous community-minded sports organization. Over a period of a few years, which coincided with the Warriors recent run of success, PG&E served as the lead sponsor of two primary community engagement sponsorship programs: Hoops4Kids and Local Warriors, which we developed on a customized basis with the Warriors. Each of the programs involved a substantial amount of program activity. The work was recognized as the Warriors’ Sponsorship Activation of the Year for 2017 based on the social impact and brand value generated through the integrated cause-based program.


The genuine care that went into partnership and program design and the real material community impact delivered made this a hugely successful program. Community value came in the form of funding, volunteer support, promotion and access to unique experiences for organization stakeholders, most notably youth who were hosted at professional sporting events, clinics and career seminars.

The real key to maximizing impact was the quality of activation and deep attention paid to the details. We made sure that all elements of each partnership and activity were authentic by focusing on the interests and critical needs of the community group involved. Activation is where sponsorships and community programs succeed or fail and, when dealing with social impact organizations and local communities, it is essential that all details go through filters that ensure acceptance by populations served.

As the influence of some established companies like PG&E wanes due to cultural, economic and environmental changes, other brands are emerging to take the baton and raise the bar on social impact partnerships. San Francisco’s Salesforce has become a corporate leader in community-based engagement that ties back to their philanthropy and holistic brand vision. Not coincidentally, Salesforce assumed the lead sponsor role for the Warriors’ Hoops4Kids program when PG&E had to drop their support in 2019.


Taking this work to another level, Salesforce has recently partnered with Eat. Learn. Play., the family foundation run by Stephen and Ayesha Curry, donating $400,000 to help purchase food that will be divided into 30,000 boxes to be distributed to low-income residents of Oakland and the surrounding region. The program also involves World Central Kitchen, the Numi Foundation and Full Harvest, all central to ensuring that the right food gets to those families in the greatest need. Emphasis is on healthy foods, particularly produce, as farms also look for creative ways for food distribution.

While the work being conducted is vital and authentically performed, it is also of significant value to publicly align with a trusted, community-oriented star athlete. Such a partnership, with natural linkage to other high-profile entities like Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen and other ethical nonprofits and social entrepreneurs, generates significant community goodwill and media coverage. This serves to advance the cause while placing Salesforce at the forefront of socially responsible corporations. It’s a truly mutually beneficial partnership that moves the needle on addressing nutrition and basic human needs.


When working with major corporations and other commercial organizations, I always look for the goodness in people and those who genuinely want to make an impact. Executives and corporate staff are naturally looking out for their employer’s interests, but the most effective executives and staff are able to look out for the needs of their company while delivering real value to the communities they serve.

There are other examples of programs that deliver this authentic value, with much more needed. While we have been doing this work for many years, much of corporate America is only now embracing this approach to truly authentic and meaningful social impact marketing. For more information, please see our case studies or feel free to reach out to discuss.

In summary, the integrated, volunteer-driven community programs described are the type of hands-on, committed social impact marketing platforms that need to be more prevalent in our society as we all look for ways to bring people together to lift those in need and to come together as “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Kevin Bartram