Marketing Branding Public Relations

How to get behind a cause to get ahead in the year of brand activism

By Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Founder

March 2, 2018 | 6 min read

If you want to get ahead, get with the zeitgeist. This year that means stepping up as experts deem 2018 the year of brand activism.


Last year saw a massive rise in socially-charged marketing endeavours from supporting causes to outright political activism, and it’s a trend that’s set to pick up pace.

Brands are no longer afraid to take part in polarising conversations they once deemed controversial subjects to be avoided at all costs. Quite the opposite, in fact. Consumers now demand it.

Take the war on plastics, suddenly a very serious battleground indeed following shocking footage of our choked oceans in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series.

Even governments have been spurred into action. Scotland has announced a ban on the sale and manufacture of plastic cotton buds and this week declared that the Scottish parliament’s recent ban on plastic drinking straws should extend to the whole country by the end of next year.

The UK environment secretary Michael Gove is expected to announce a ban across the country within months – a move the Daily Mail is claiming as a “major victory” for its Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign.

Joining this now high-profile campaign against plastic pollution offers a great opportunity for brands to do good – and achieve considerable consumer buy-in.

Wagamama, Wetherspoon and Buckingham Palace are some of the big names that have already ended the use of plastic straws and gathered kudos in doing so. But environment isn't the only battlefield.

GoldieBlox’s Princess Machine and Heineken’s Worlds Apart campaigns have led a charge into ‘ads to change attitudes’ territory. Others have been getting serious about civil rights - Gap partnered with major advocacy group GLAAD to bring awareness to LGBTQ bullying.

Sprout Social recently surveyed more than 1,000 US consumers and found that two-thirds (66%) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues and big business is getting on board in a big way.

BlackRock Inc’s boss Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management business, spelt out the challenge in his recent annual letter to chief executives. The letter was given the heading A Sense of Purpose. In it, Fink says: “Society is increasingly turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges… the expectations of your company have never been greater.”

No need to tell that to the global leader of cause-related marketing, fashion supremo Dame Vivienne Westwood. She’s a passionate activist with her ‘Punk with Purpose’ agenda against climate change, fracking and the UK’s arbitrary detainment of freedom fighter Julian Assange.

She stands in favour of a full-scale switch to clean energy, starting with the British fashion industry. Her goal? A truly sustainable green economy where less is more and we embrace the notion of ‘Buy Less’, even though that goes against the grain in our massively consumerist society.

Westwood famously reprioritised her focus back in 2014 saying: “I have decided not to expand anymore. In fact, I want to do the opposite. I am now more interested in quality rather than quantity.”

There’s no cynicism with Westwood. It’s pure, burning belief. The potency and authenticity of her message infuse every fibre of what she says, does and sells off the rack.

Last month, I organised her ‘frack walk’ against the multinational petrochemicals behemoth INEOS outside its Knightsbridge HQ.

The stunt launched London Fashion Week and captured global media attention by cutting to the bone of an organisation which is shockingly ‘buying the law’ to make any protest against their activities a contempt of court punishable by a prison sentence.

Westwood and her son Joe Corré, co-founder of Agent Provocateur, are fearless in their stand against INEOS’s corporate bullying. They’re a powerful example of brand activism, of businesses stepping up and responding to the societal challenges Fink referred to.

Wikipedia offers this definition of activism: “… consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, and/or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to make improvements in society.”

If we use this as our starting point, we can create a framework that will allow businesses to encompass a hardcore, but authentic, activist strategy. There are seven key fundamentals:

* Transparency – share your brand purpose with all employees

* Alignment – make sure everyone is on board with it

* DNA – use a personality profiling system to bring your brand’s DNA to life

* Multi-level – engage in activism at both local and national level

* Sponsorship – put your money where your mouth is and sponsor causes

* Checklist – have you aligned with a good cause?

* Fearlessness – don’t be shy, brandish your messages for all to see and hear

The cause doesn’t have to be an obvious fit. People are attracted to brands that share their ideologies, so these days it’s often about being vocal in support of a movement.

Last year, big tech took on Donald Trump and won respect when an unprecedented 162 US brands including Apple, Google and Facebook got behind a legal brief against the US president’s controversial immigration order.

Also last year, the seemingly invincible megastar Taylor Swift took a direct hit over Trump, but it was Tay Tay’s reluctance to speak out against the president that landed her in hot water.

These days, keeping schtum is far from the safest option. It’s imperative that brands speak out, fly a flag that people can rally behind. Positioning is no longer enough in highly competitive markets. Consumers are looking for meaning and a sense of belonging.

The 2015 study by Cone Communications sums it up perfectly – 91% of millennials now say they would switch brands to one associated with a cause. If that’s not a call to activism, I don’t know what is!

Bang On to Richard on email and Twitter @6hillgrove

Marketing Branding Public Relations

More from Marketing

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +