The highs and lows of brand activism

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red and a passionate advocate of the good that marketing can do, working on social purpose and behaviour change projects for the past 10 years.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, chances are we’ll be standing alongside brands as much as people. 2017 is set to be the year that brand activism comes of age.

Christian Sarkar and Phil Kotler have broken down brand activism into its component parts with their usual elegant simplicity and in doing have highlighted both the opportunities and risks that brands take when adopting an activist stance.

They represent brand activism as being a natural evolution from corporate social responsibility; the next iteration where those businesses that are more evolved in this area have moved from marketing or corporate driven operations into models driven by values.

This is not entirely a new phenomenon, and despite the received wisdom, it is not a response to the sensibilities of millennials. The original flag bearers for brand activism such as Ben & Jerry’s (1978), The Body Shop (1976) and Ecover (1980) came of age with the independent thinkers of Generation X. The pace at which brands have adopted activist tendencies has accelerated, driven in large part by presence on social and the pressing need to be relevant to an ever-more challenging universe of consumers.

Kotler and Sarkar talk about the different aspects of brand activism, breaking them down as follows:

  • Social activism – broadly about discrimination or community-based issues
  • Legal activism – referring to taxation, employment rights etc
  • Business activism – including governance, pay ratios and unionisation
  • Economic activism – such as living wage and minimum wage, gender pay gap etc
  • Political activism – highly connected to politics but also voting and voter turnout
  • Environmental activism – stretches across the full environmental agenda

It is apparent where some brands will be able to act with credibility against the different areas and where they will not. And here’s the rub, acting with legitimacy in one area will in no way make up for lack of accountability or transparency in others.

McDonald's found this out the hard way with its Pay With Lovin’ initiative in the US (pay with hugs, high fives etc rather than cash); a good example of social activism, about inclusivity, tolerance and a sense of shared experience which would have been lovely (albeit unlikely to have translated well across markets) were it not marred by minimum wage challenges and a demand for unionisation (as discussed in the NY Times Blog).

The degree to which brands engage in any form of activism as a means to create better connections with their consumers varies enormously. For some the spirit of activism is part of their own DNA and will have played a part in shaping the customer base at the outset.

Howies is a great example of this in the UK. Natural activists in both social and environmental spheres, the brand is what it makes and enviable brand loyalty has grown up around that.

What has become apparent in the past two years is that there is an increasing intoxication when participation and activism come together. Consumers are open to immersive experiences with brands they buy from in which they have a reasonable degree of interest. There is a huge opportunity to make those immersive experiences (and these can as readily be virtual as physical) connect to activism – so long as both the activism and the experience are relevant and appealing to the consumer.

Deep customer insight underpins all of this and has never been more important. Sarkar and Kotler make a very interesting point in their paper that not all activism is progressive. The example they cite is tobacco advertising in the 1950s where tobacco manufacturers pitched their healthy positioning hard against all evidence to the contrary. In doing that they were in part standing side-by-side with consumers who rejected the data and objected to growing health lobby and government intervention.

In the coming years it will be interesting to see how many brands echo the political and societal shift which speaks to the counter-narrative, one which does not meet our ideologically liberal view of brand activism as we sit here today. There are brands that know their heartland is consumers that voted for Trump, for Brexit, that campaign against gay marriage, female clergy and that support the regressive policies in relation to human rights that are currently being discussed. The triangulation of the platform that brands have, consumer appetite for shared activism and an under-current of pernicious conservatism could make for terrifying results.

However, for 2017 at least, the move seems to be for brands to make a stand against the shift. The Super Bowl was a reassuring and, in many parts, beautifully told story of brands saying on behalf of themselves and their customer, ‘not in my name’. There is a sense or urgency and energy in this new wave of marketing – the new chapter from This Girl Can captures it well with a tone that is as much challenge as it is inspiration.

This International Women’s Day is likely to see more brands than ever before standing shoulder to shoulder with their customers and their staff to speak up for what they believe in. What will be interesting is which are still bringing the change after 8 March.

Jo Arden is head of strategy at 23red

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