The dawn of brand activism: Is your brand taking a stand?

Facebook and Google face constant privacy rights challenges, Uber is fighting regulators and taxi unions around the globe, Air BnB has the hospitality industry up in arms, Amazon is battling tax avoidance accusations and Starbucks has to weather a self inflicted #race discussion...

While organisations from ExxonMobil to Wal-Mart and Sony have had to deal with their impact on society and the environment for centuries, something has changed fundamentally.

Companies are dealing with unprecedented speed of change, flow of information and scale of impact. The most disruptive brands respond by embracing their role as change agent and by enlisting their community as brand activists who fight their cause.

A new brand world

The increased speed of innovation and the disruptive nature of these businesses make it more complex than ever to assess und comprehend what their impact might be. Regulators, academics, journalists and analysts are scratching their heads in disbelief at how these rising unicorns have fundamentally changed the way we communicate, travel, interact and work as a society within a matter of years. Change triggers resistance and the organisations themselves are often the only ones who know where and when the next wave of disruption will strike.

No more smoke-filled rooms

In the wake of this consumers have drastically changed their expectations towards brands. The days where tactical CSR and well thought out crisis management plans were good enough are long gone. Consumers empowered through instant and seamless communication, as well as through unprecedented access to information, expect brands to take a stand. They want organisations that are transparent about their impact and that are bold enough to express their vision and role for the future. The expectation is that great organisations have a purpose that is reflected in its people, products and conduct.

Arrival of the brand activist

Some leading organisations have managed to capitalise on this by turning their supporters into brand activists. Uber has done an amazing job in crafting a narrative about its mission to disrupt an ineffective market and empower the end-user through technology. Uber also hired ex-Obama advisor David Plouffe and immediately took a page from his playbook by enabling users in New York to challenge mayor Di Blasio directly through the app. Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick put it this way: “What we maybe should’ve realised sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber."

But brand activism is not just the domain of Silicon Valley unicorns. Virgin Americas started a successful petition on change.org to gain access to the monopolised Dallas Love Field airport. Rovio, maker of the Angry Bird games, started a crowd campaign to enable its gamers to help protect the birds in the pacific from alien predators who steal their eggs. These organisations manage to create unmatched engagement and strong win-win situations by activating their community for a cause.

Don’t hire a chief revolution officer just yet

It’s a scary world for marketers. Many might have a nostalgic longing for the ‘simple’ days when selling coffee was about selling coffee (and covering up the occasional labour dispute). Of course it is always a daring task for any organisation to take a stand on wider political or ethical issues. The nature of the game is that some people will be mad at you. The recent backlash over Starbucks' #racetogether campaign, urging Baristas to start a conversation about race with customers, shows how difficult it is to get this right.

But the greatest organisations view it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Or as Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard puts it: "If you're not pissing off 50 per cent of the people, you're not trying hard enough."

Brand activism needs to be deeply aligned with the brand's purpose and focused on an area where the brand has a credible role to play. The organisations that get this right drive incredible customer loyalty, advocacy and passion while advancing causes that are part of their company’s core.

Brand activism is here to stay. So get ready for all its opportunity and controversy.

Benni Lickfett is the CMO at kriticalmass

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Benni Lickfett

Over a decade experience in helping start-up companies and Fortune 500 firms to unlock their brand potential and grow their business. Currently CMO and co-founder at kriticalmass, enabling brands to power positive impact causes alongside the crowd.

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