Brands & activism: The shift from corporation to “community of citizens”

Adrian Grenier (left) and Gareth Jones, Possible MD, at Brands & Activism event in Seattle

All you have to do is turn on the TV or scroll through your Facebook feed to realize that we’re in the midst of some unique (some would say unfortunate) socio-political circumstances — circumstances that are polarizing communities around the world.

For the first time in what seems like a long time, ordinary people are taking a stand for what they believe in. They are taking to the streets and marching for change. Subsequently, we are moving into a cultural phase that is being defined by action, by activism. And we as individuals are judged by what we do and what we don’t do. It isn’t enough any more to say you’re for or against something; you must prove it.

In this world of so-called conscientious consumerism, brands are emerging as legitimate catalysts for change. They can no longer afford to watch from the sidelines but instead need to strive to make the world a better place in whatever ways they can.

Hollywood actor-turned-activist Adrian Grenier and the Lonely Whale Foundation have been working to do just this. Grenier set up his non-profit two years ago, in an effort to improve ocean health, and has since been working with a range of brands, including Dell, to drive social good at a corporate level.

“Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of brands to first look at how they can reduce their negative impact on the world. Then they can take what they’ve learned and invite others in to help them spread the understanding,” Grenier told me at a recent Brands & Activism event on the topic, held at Possible. “For me, this is what brand activism is all about.”

With this in mind, we conducted a Twitter poll, which showed that 60% of consumers feel it is incumbent on brands get involved in activism. The reality, however, is that it’s never been more difficult for marketers to join the debate. We live in a time where trust in institutions — not just government or political institutions, but all institutions — is at an all-time low. This means that brands have really got to up their game.

Take Starbucks, for example; a company that has not only put the desire to do good at the core of its corporate agenda, but is actively looking to innovate in the sustainability space. Vivek Varma, EVP public affairs at the coffee company, says: “We’re focused on using our scale and creativity to think outside the box.”

The question then becomes how can brands enter into topical, and often sensitive, conversations when customers don’t trust them to do so? When done right, a brand feels like part of the community and a force for good. When done poorly, it feels forced and inauthentic.

The answer, it seems, is simple. First and foremost, have good intentions. If you aim to make your employees and your customers proud, the rest will follow. Secondly, be proactive and identify the areas where your brand can add value. Finally, be unique: leverage what you’re good at so your brand adds something to the conversation.

This is, in fact, the process followed by Microsoft, the world’s largest software company. Yusuf Mehdi, CVP Windows & Devices Marketing Group, explains: “I no longer see our team as traditional marketers that build brands or launch marketing campaigns. I see us as a team that is focused on driving change on the issues that matter most.”

The challenge for smaller brands is slightly different. Without the scale, awareness or marketing dollars of more established companies, emerging brands must be nimbler in their approach. Often the best way for start-ups to amplify their voice is to be disruptive. “We pick our issues, take a stand, and go out in the world to do something,” says Megan Murray, director of marketing at Oiselle, a women’s fitness apparel brand that has made activism a key part of its brand strategy.

For some brands, getting involved in the activism agenda is a prerequisite for growth.

Privateer Holdings is a company focused on producing and distributing educational content for consumers about legal marijuana. For decades, activists and political campaigners have been at the forefront of calls for cannabis policy reform, but as legalization takes hold it will be incumbent upon brands in this space to lead the way. This means having a strong and active voice at all times. “Sitting on the sidelines isn't an option for us because activism is inherent to everything we do,” explains Zach Hutson, VP corporate affairs at Privateer.

The fact is, whether you’re a big global corporation, a scrappy start-up, or a brand on the fringes of the mainstream, to have an active and believable voice in any socially relevant debate, you need to commit to breaking down the barriers between you and your customers. Instead of focusing on brand marketing in the traditional sense, success lies in finding unique and authentic was of revealing the actions that bring your core brand values to life day after day.

Against this backdrop, the role of marketers as brand stewards is changing. CMOs now need to collaborate more closely with internal stakeholders, customers, and even detractors as they actively strive to “do no harm”.

The bottom line: CMOs must become chief collaborators as their companies evolve from corporations into “communities of citizens”.

Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones is managing director of Possible in Seattle, Washington.

All by Gareth