Brand Partnerships Partnership Marketing

How marketers can change the game for the neurodiverse


By Nathan Friedman, Chief marketing officer

August 10, 2021 | 6 min read

Through well-planned partnerships, brands can better support and connect with people who have thinking and learning differences, writes Nathan Friedman, chief marketer at social impact organization Understood.

People pushing puzzle pieces together

Currently, there’s a growing need to bring brands together to change the game for the neurodiverse, or those who learn and think differently. One in five people identify as neurodiverse or have an invisible disability, such as dyslexia or ADHD, representing 20% of the U.S. population. And although several brands have already taken steps to create more accessible experiences and shape opportunities for those with invisible disabilities, there is more work to be done to build awareness and appreciation of these differences. So how do brands break through the chatter to spark meaningful change? One answer is: brand partnerships.

So how do brands break through the chatter to spark meaningful change? One answer is establishing well-planned brand partnerships.

Brand partnerships can act as a catalyst for meaningful change if deployed correctly, as they can enable brands to reach new audiences, build awareness of a message or cause and encourage engagement in new ways.

Keys to a successful partnership

A few examples of recent partnerships that have enacted social change include: Asos and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad) collaborating to create a clothing line to help the fight against discrimination; Peloton and The Steve Fund supporting college students of color and their mental health; and MTV partnering with Understood and others to bring awareness to today’s mental health challenges in a single day of action. All three of these campaigns were able to grasp the attention of their targeted audience and provide communities with a sense of feeling heard, seen and understood – a feeling that the neurodiverse often lack.

In order to enact a successful brand partnership to truly change the game for the neurodiverse (or succeed in any other social cause), marketers should keep the following best practices in mind:

1. Identify your target audience and partner with an organization that can extend your reach to drive impact for your mission.

Odds are that part of the reason you’re looking to engage in a brand partnership is to expand the reach of your mission and message. So to set your partnership up for success, it’s important to team with an organization that has greater influence in a space you’d like to expand into.

For example, Understood works with The American Academy of Pediatrics on Take Note, a memory device to help families spot signs of learning and thinking differences and seek support. The partnership is wise because pediatricians are among the foremost experts when it comes to identifying and educating the public about learning and thinking differences. Through the program, Understood was able to reach more pediatricians, which ultimately helps get its resources into the hands of those who need them.

2. Make sure the organization you partner with has a shared ethos – and confirm it is ‘walking the walk.’

Successful partnerships contain diverse but complementary organizations that collaborate to create impactful change and create long-term value. By partnering with a complementary organization, both your brand and the organization can expand, align and refine its efforts while drawing on each other’s strengths to create the most positive impact possible. However, to create a successful program, you must ensure the organization you choose to work with is not just ‘talking the talk’ but ‘walking the walk’.

Today, many consumers are choosing purpose over profit. In fact, more than 80% of millennials believe the primary purpose of business should be to create social value rather than to make profit. As a result of this outlook, many brands and organizations are taking steps to create purposeful change, but it has also led to a rise in ’purpose washing’ – presenting your brand as if it operates according to a larger purpose, when in reality it only operates to serve itself.

To avoid partnering with an organization that is just trying to fit the norms of the day without taking much action, be sure to investigate its claims to validate this is an organization you’d like to associate with publicly.

3. Hold your partnership to shared metrics to keep both teams accountable.

Last but not least, it’s crucial to set long-term and short-term goals from the get-go to hold both parties accountable. Any good marketing campaign needs to have predefined, quantifiable metrics in place to define what success looks like and how the end goal will be met.

In addition, metrics will help pave a way forward by allowing brands to analyze what could have worked better and how they can tweak their approach for the next go around. Without having metrics to measure against, brands may struggle to achieve desired outcomes.

Expanding accessibility through partnership

Many brands today have the best intentions when it comes to accessibility and inclusion programs, but they lack a holistic vision or they don’t know where to start. Partnerships can better equip brands with the tools they need to reach and support those with learning and thinking differences.

The fact is, when it comes to accessibility, many brands are just meeting the minimum Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulatory standards, when these should be seen as a starting point. Unfortunately, many of these accommodations focus on physical disabilities and do not address the needs of the more than 70 million people who are affected by learning and thinking differences.

It’s time to bust the statistic that says more than half of people believe that learning and thinking are the result of laziness or don't exist at all. Through the power of brand partnerships and inclusive marketing, we have seen firsthand that embracing these differences can be beneficial for everyone. The power of brand partnerships can act as a catalyst for meaningful change – and no matter what industry you're in, you can be a game changer too.

Nathan Friedman is the chief marketing officer of Understood.

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