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Brand Purpose Activism Brand Strategy

What can brands learn from Just Stop Oil?

By Alex Lewis, Co-founder



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January 9, 2023 | 9 min read

Is activism through disruption a powerful way of changing minds or harmful to progress? Alex Lewis of purpose specialists Revolt looks into what brands can learn from recent activist stunts.

Just Stop Oil protesters marching in London

If brands want to learn about purpose, should they pay attention to activists like Just Stop Oil? / Credit: Just Stop Oil

Just Stop Oil has hit the headlines time and time again in recent weeks with protests including spray painting car showrooms, multiple road block gauges, climbing a gantry on London’s M25 and recently occupying beds in Harrods. News coverage has shown furious members of the public pulling protestors out of roads, and people have been incredulous about some of the actions, particularly throwing soup over a Van Gogh.

What does all this have to do with stopping oil companies from plundering the environment? Why does Just Stop Oil seem intent on disrupting ordinary lives? These are some of the questions that are being asked. Totally understandable – but it’s not what we should be asking.

The real question is: if you’ve got everyone’s attention, how are you going to use this to help the planet?

Activism doesn’t have to start with an act that directly relates to the cause. From Gandhi and the salt march to Peta and fake blood, protests show us that the first task is to get the audience’s attention. Shock is often an effective means of doing so. But it’s what activists do once the public is listening that’s so important.

So what can brands learn from Just Stop Oil? And how can they use their activism to affect meaningful change?

Find the right fight

Extinction Rebellion began its civil disobedience strategy in 2018 to draw attention to climate change. But its ambitious and broad vision is difficult to translate into action because it requires change on many fronts simultaneously.

Movements like Just Stop Oil benefit from a specific vision that is closely connected to the action that needs to be undertaken to effect change. Oil and gas field licenses are issued by government, so there is a clear target audience who must be influenced in order for laws to be changed. With a more tangible goal and clearer action, these complex issues start to feel easier to navigate.

Brands need a similar focus to deliver change. When a brand looks at the issues affecting its business or challenging its core values, they need to go beyond talking about the problem to articulating a solution that is relevant to both the business and its customers. This mutual benefit can be used to frame the ‘fight’. For instance, Patagonia’s commitment to reducing waste through its Worn Wear program benefits customers who get to extend the life of their existing gear through high-quality repairs from the brand.

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Translate activism into ‘actionism’ at scale

Marketers are familiar with the balancing act of long-term brand building and short-term tactical activation. Creating change in the world also relies on a balance: between the big, audacious goal you’re setting out to achieve and the more comfortable steps toward change that make it manageable.

Brands must think about their audiences: is everyone aware of the problem and ready to act, or do they need to be segmented into different groups? Those already engaged in the issue will respond differently to people with a passive interest. Think about whether both can be engaged at the same time, or if one audience can kickstart the action before others are converted to the movement.

Consider the partners who can support a brand’s activity, whether those are influential voices who validate the proposed solution, or people with the expertise to deliver it on the ground. For instance, supermarket chain Iceland’s recently launched in-store loans scheme is delivered with ethical loans company Fair For You, which helped Iceland design the pilot scheme.

Create a roadmap for change

Before a brand starts talking about its big goal, it must think about the steps required to get there.

Many of the problems we face are systemic: tackling one part of the issue will surface new problems. Audacious goals for change are effective when brands commit to tackling the problems they find along the way. Pampers’ commitment “to ensure that babies have the brightest beginnings” typifies this. Their program started with funding tetanus vaccinations with Unicef but has extended far beyond this to specialist nappies for premature babies and dads’ access to baby change facilities. They recognize that there are many areas where they have the expertise to solve a larger problem.

Start by identifying the first few steps along the journey. If the fight is clear enough, then break it down and start planning what is needed for the longer term.

Communicate your vision and invite participation

When a fight has mutual benefit for both the business and the wider world, find ways for people to participate. Taking collective action helps people to feel part of a community, reinforcing a shared sense of belief and helping to embed the change into society.

The difficulty for movements like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain is that by eschewing more traditional means of engaging in political change in favor of radical disruption, they are struggling to convert a wider audience to participate and drive change. Research suggests that you may need as many as 25% of a population to participate in your cause in order to turn it into a movement that delivers lasting change. As participants, those individuals become a voice to spread your actions further – such as Dove’s pledge to educate a quarter of a billion young people around the world on body confidence and self-esteem by 2030.

Being disruptive to draw attention to an issue is only one part of the job. Brands with a real commitment to an issue will invest time and resources into thinking about the best way to translate attention into actions that will bring about lasting change.

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Brand Purpose Activism Brand Strategy

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