(Pictured above: This Land is Our Land March for Public Lands, July 27th, 2017, Utah State Capitol)

2017 brought political turmoil, international conflict, natural disasters and a growing social divide and yet, many companies and brands stepped up to be a bright spot in an otherwise upending year. By acting as social compasses for consumers in 2017, brands have ushered in a new era of social responsibility and opportunity to take us into the new year.

We’re taking a look back at six of the most surprising trends where brands bared their souls, and consumers and the environment benefited.

  1. Companies can sue the government…and gain customers

It is traditionally not a positive thing to go head to head with the US government, but in Patagonia’s case this year, challenging the government’s action on public lands resulted in thousands of social media conversations, positively praising the brand. Patagonia called more attention to the issue by changing their homepage to a bold black screen reading “the president stole your land” with the opportunity to learn more and take action.

While not all brands can or should be as bold as Patagonia, who has a deep history of activism, there’s a valuable lesson here for brands to understand their values, their consumer base’s values, and to take a stand. This year has demonstrated there is sometimes a greater risk for staying silent.

  1. Divisive topics are no longer off limits

It used to be a best practice for companies and brands to avoid controversial issues or topics, playing it safe by staying neutral. With the rise of millennial consumers, paired with a divisive political climate, consumers are now demanding brands speak up, and do it loudly. This year showed that even the most timid or quiet of brands are finding their voice. For example, the NCAA spoke up to protect transgender rights, and IBM launched a full campaign to defend DACA and the Dreamers.

The lesson from 2017’s softening of off limits subjects is likely to continue into 2018. Brands should look for opportunities to speak up when their values demand it, keeping in mind the values of their customers, but not bending to pressure. Similarly brands will need to be vigilant they are “walking the talk” on any issue they decide to speak out about. For example, State Street, the financial-services company behind “Fearless Girl,” the statue of a young woman challenging Wall Street’s Charging Bull, was held accountable and forced to pay a $5 million settlement over allegations that it paid its females employees less than their male counterparts.

  1. Mutually beneficial partnerships on the rise

Brands in all industries continued to push for innovation in their sustainability efforts, but 2017 saw even more strategic partnerships bringing sustainable solutions to the market quicker than if brands had gone alone

Adidas Outdoor expanded its collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, the organization that brings together creative industries to raise awareness and find solutions to combat marine plastic pollution; one of the biggest threats to the ocean today.

adidas Outdoor Terrex Climacool Parley Boat Shoe
adidas Outdoor Terrex Climacool Parley Boat Shoe

Similarly, Timberland launched a collaboration with Thread’s Ground to Good™ fabric, harvested from plastic bottles littering the streets and landfills of Haiti.

This year’s lesson in expanding partnerships is to look for mutually beneficial opportunities and collaborations. Collaborations offer the opportunity to expand consumer bases and introduce brands to new audiences. Equally important is designing a thoughtful communication strategy around the collaboration. Neither Adidas nor Timberland demanded exclusivity with their partners and proudly promote the innovative partners’ work.

  1. Companies rally fans to take action

Far beyond the traditional model of a cause campaign where brands would mirror values back to consumers, this year saw brands actually leading the campaigns, educating consumers to take action. Nowhere was this more evident than in the outdoor industry as brands took action to educate consumers about public lands policy and aimed to mobilize them in defending those lands. Brands invested heavily in digital and social campaigns to move consumers to defend national monuments. CGPR client LifeStaw leveraged their fans to make progress on their bold ambition to bring safe drinking water to one million school children in developing countries by next year.

This lesson is all about making and emotional connection with consumers. Today’s consumer is demanding more than clever marketing to win its business and brands that are stretching beyond cause marketing into action and activation are seeing the most success.

  1. The year of the female

While this year uncovered decades of sexual harassment in workplaces and women are represented at a record low in white house leadership roles, this year has once again demonstrated the power of women in the marketplace. From the #Metoo campaign to the Women’s March, female empowerment took a bold step forward in 2017. Companies took notice. For example REI’s “Force of Nature” campaign “Force of Nature” campaign committed investment, product and marketing to level the gender gap in the outdoors. Similarly, Procter & Gamble (P&G) launched a new corporate #WeSeeEqual campaign aimed at uncovering gender bias and Under Armor launched their female athlete focused “will what they want” campaign stating that “the space between woman and athlete is no space at all.”

These brands were successful in promoting women empowerment because they did so authentically and with brand relevant communication.

  1. The supply chain gets a scrub

Brands across industries stepped up to clean up their supply chains this year. With mounting consumer pressure and increase risk in unstable raw materials, energy or labor practices, brands took innovative steps to bring more transparency to their process. CGPR clients Applied DNA Sciences and PimaCott introduced the first certified pure pima cotton sheets made possible through a technology that tags and tracks pure cotton through the supply chain. Another CGPR client and component brand, PrimaLoft made leaps and bounds on its sustainability plan offering three varieties of sustainable synthetic insulations to the market. Even ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s took a hard look at their supply chain this year, committing to more humane farmworker practices and a move to organics in 2018.

Consumer demand for supply chain transparency is expected to continue into the near year. Proactive brands will examine ways to improve their practices, and communicate clearly and with transparency.

While 2017 saw more and more brands jumping on the soul train, the ride is not always easy. There remains risk and requires bold action from senior leadership. Brands need to use the new year to closely examine their values and be ready to bare those values in the new year. When communicated clearly, and backed up by action, brands stand to broaden their consumer base and build loyalty with fans.