Brand Activism: Stand for something before taking a stand

What is brand activism?

If your business is playing a significant role in driving social, political, economic or environmental change, then it is engaging in brand activism. By taking a stand on a pressing issue (or issues), businesses add a new facet to consumer purchasing decisions.

Traditionally consumers weigh up the quality, price and availability of goods and services and come to decisions based on their needs, convenience, the urgency of their need and the budget they have available.

Brands that have either been established with a higher purpose at their core, or those that have naturally evolved beyond Corporate Social Responsibility to become values-driven companies, attract customers whose values align with their own. These customers will go out of their way to engage a given brand’s services or buy their goods because their society-driven mission is something they want to support. This economic activism on the part of consumers elevates the purchase of everyday items and services from simple commercial transactions to an important expression of their moral code.

 

The history of brand activism

“We exist to fight for a fairer, more beautiful world… We drive purpose as well as profit”Body Shop Brand Purpose 

One of the first companies to publicly declare that driving positive change in the world  was as important as making a profit was The Body Shop. Founded in Brighton in 1976 by Anita Roddick, The Body Shop championed cruelty-free, environmentally friendly cosmetics and toiletries and celebrated every body type.

With Roddick at the helm, the company was never afraid to publicly align with causes and cultural issues that were close to its heart. In 1986 The Body Shop joined forces with Greenpeace for the Save the Whale campaign, to put an end to whale hunting for profit. In 1989 it launched its first environmental campaign, organizing a petition to present to the Brazilian president calling for a stop to the burning of Brazilian rainforests.

Since then it has raised awareness of the plight of the Ogoni People, protested against animal testing, promoted renewable energy, raised money to help victims of domestic violence and created the Get Lippy campaign, to help people suffering from HIV and AIDS. Perhaps its most resounding success was its joint project with ECPAT International, campaigning against the trafficking of children and young people, which ultimately resulted in 24 countries worldwide committing to adopting new legislation.  

The company’s passion and commitment to both human and animal rights and environmental issues means that it has a customer base that is so engaged with the causes it champions that they will seek out Body Shop products when they run out of shampoo, body butter or any of the other products they are known to retail. Furthermore, because the company and customer values align, goods can command a higher price than many of their competitors, as consumers feel that the money is doing something good (as well as buying them something to soften the hard skin on their elbows). 

Like The Body Shop, activist brands such as Vega, Patagonia and The Beauty Counter have successfully embraced activism because social issues or environmental reform are the higher purpose at the heart of their brand. However, many other brands run campaigns in response to news-worthy events and it is here that this type of activism can go array, alienating consumers and causing long-term damage to a brand’s image. 

“Those who stand for nothing, fall for everything”

Alexander Hamilton

When social issues drive transformation in business – the terrifying power of activism 

On May 25th 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day in Minneapolis for using a forged $20 note. Riots, violence and civil unrest reverberated around the world; CEOs called for a reparations commission and a ban on police unions; according to Forbes, over 28 million Instagram users participated in #BlackoutTuesday, posting empty black tiles in silent (and some might say, empty) solidarity and some of America’s oldest household brands came under the spotlight for their slavery-era branding.

Shareholders worth a collective $620 billion, pressured Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to terminate their business relationships with the Redskins unless the team agreed to change its name (which it has subsequently agreed to do).

More than 200 big brand spenders boycotted Facebook over its handling of hate speech, and misinformation which has risen into the #stophateforprofit campaign.

Some have dismissed these temporary withdrawals from Facebook as little more than a PR stunt . Others have suggested that the movement is unlikely to have the desired material impact on Facebook’s bottom line (given that the majority of its revenues are derived from small-to-medium businesses.) Regardless, we’re living in unprecedented times.

Is taking a stance right for your company?

Watching big brand after big brand respond to public backlash by releasing carefully worded, tight-lipped public statements about their attitude to racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 may make you feel that business and activism are best served separately. After all, weighing in on divisive issues risks your market share by inevitably alienating some people and putting them off your brand. However, brand silence is not what the majority of consumers want:

“Kantar’s 2020 report found that 54% of consumers now expect brands to take an active role in social conversations about issues like #MeToo and racial injustices, with consumers also demanding meaningful action rather than empty solidarity.” – Nikki Gilliland, Econsultancy, February 2021

Furthermore, when you consider the brand responses to the murder of George Floyd, not all of them were misfires. Nike’s Just Don’t Do It campaign was a spin on their Just Do It motto and called on Americans not to ignore racism and pretend it isn’t a problem. Well received by the public and supported by other brands, this response is widely considered to be one of the most authentic brand reactions to the events of 25th May 2020. Crucially, Nike’s activist messaging was reinforced by its commitment to spend $40 million on projects to support black communities. 

The depth of feeling that pushes people to the streets to protest a political issue or into the court rooms in an attempt to achieve improvements in society should not be ignored or underestimated.

“The change coming will be as radical as the 60s. People will demand action: Change now or we burn the place down” (Research Respondent) As Dr. Arlo Brady, CEO of Freuds, (who conducted the research quoted above ) comments; “The recent rise of backyard activism is vital and it can often act as a ‘gateway drug’ for action on the Global Goals. Gen Z gets hooked on impact, much like a gondola-end BOGO deal in the supermarket that you spy from the street, it pulls you in”.

There are many pressing issues facing the world at this moment and there are people and organizations fighting to address them every day. Racism did not suddenly materialise on the streets of Minneapolis on a hot day in May and then disappear when the ensuing high profile legal case drew to a close.

The environmental, cultural and societal issues we face continue to exist when journalists are not writing about them or giving them air time. And that is how you decide whether taking a stance is right for your company. If taking a stand about an environmental issue or against racism, sexism, animal cruelty, child abuse or any of the other key issues we face today is something that drives your business and is the purpose behind your profit making, then you are right to engage in brand activism and it has the power to be a huge force for good, both for your business and for society.

Alternatively, if you are simply taking a stance on a given issue because it happens to be big news, then you are engaging in brand re-activism and your attempts to gain marketing traction from a popular topic are more likely to be detrimental to your business in the long term. This is especially true if the controversial issue you are wading in on is not part of your brand’s core belief statement and has not previously taken up so much as a moment’s chat at a board meeting.

Activism isn’t meant to be impulsive, reactionary or convenient, but fear often drives individuals and corporations to one of two extremes; to jump on an activist bandwagon or to stay doggedly silent. This fear can manifest itself in a number of ways – fear of not being seen to do the right thing; fear of being too white, too male or not black enough – but engaging in brand activism on the basis of fear alone does not pay off. There’s a big difference between an existential fear of standing by and not doing anything to change the status quo and the fear of doing something – anything – just in case you get found out.

Activism isn’t meant to be impulsive, reactionary or convenient, but fear often drives individuals and corporations to one of two extremes; to jump on an activist bandwagon or to stay doggedly silent. This fear can manifest itself in a number of ways – fear of not being seen to do the right thing; fear of being too white, too male or not black enough – but engaging in brand activism on the basis of fear alone does not pay off. There’s a big difference between an existential fear of standing by and not doing anything to change the status quo and the fear of doing something – anything – just in case you get found out.

How do you pursue brand activism with authenticity?

If you are looking for examples of companies that pursues their goals with authenticity, Ben & Jerry’s is an activist brand that has been praised and criticized because the company and its leaders have been doing the hard work of racial justice advocacy for decades. Ben & Jerry’s has long funded and built relationships with civil rights leaders, giving the company a credible platform to use its voice and be heard when police violence against Black Americans once again spilled into the streets.

As Adam Fetcher in Fast Company points out; “there are a lot of organizations that desire to emulate Ben & Jerry’s but lack a serious history of working on behalf of causes larger than their own success. There’s no manual, and there are no shortcuts to credibility. It requires a willingness to build a foundation that’s not driven by PR. If you can focus on impact over attention, the press will cover your efforts with the depth it merits at a time when you actually deserve it.”

Mark Ritson puts it this way; “ We make change by enacting it within our organizations and therefore becoming the exemplars for others. If you care about black lives, you don’t get inspired by an Instagram post. You get inspired by black faces in the boardroom. Companies need to become the change they are tweeting about. Walk the walk before you tweet the tweet. (Though that second step really isn’t necessary.)”

Talk is cheap, silence can be deafening but hypocrisy is intolerable.

So where to start? Simply put, stand for something before taking a stand and be prepared to be held to account if you don’t.

“By choosing brands that align with their values, shoppers are voting with their wallets for the kinds of businesses they want in the world and paving the way toward a more sustainable and just economy. We’re in an unfortunate time where governments and institutions provide less and less moral leadership and we now expect to see it from the brands we buy,” says Bthechange, a B-corp that helps brands, retailers and non-profits activate purpose at retail.

There is no rule book. There is no relief from responsibility and things aren’t always going to go to plan…and do you know what? That’s OK.

A good place to start is to draw a simple Venn diagram (spot the strategist) and then find the intersection between what your brand uniquely offers, what the world needs and what the what is preventing the desired behavior (the intention to action gap)  That’s your purpose. From there find a foundation, non-profit or a social enterprise that can help you realize it.

 

Listen, learn and understand what it really takes to translate that purpose into a mission. Last (but by no means least) find a retailer who can help you activate it – which will mean that the ‘why’ of your purpose will need be connected to the ‘way’ of profit.

If the engine of commerce, fuelled by social innovation and kept in check by an ever more conscious consumer, can create sustainable, scalable solutions for what the world needs and what people want, then brands can (and ostensibly should) become the most powerful instruments for change the world has ever seen. Now that’s brand activism in our book.