Brand Activism…Big Opportunity for Non-Profits

Well, here it comes. Brand activism – the breakthrough concept in marketing management.  This is clearly going to be a big opportunity for nonprofits and governments with major causes that are looking to partner with the private sector.

Historically, most brands have been marketed on their performance characteristics. “Our toothpaste is better than yours.”  We’re better at “whitening teeth,” “preventing cavities,” or giving you “fresh breath.” Positioning is the name of the game in brand marketing.

But positioning is no longer enough in our highly competitive markets. Just consider marketing to millennials, one of today’s largest demographic groups. Millennials have high expectations for brands. Millennials live in a world filled with constant problems – air pollution, bad drinking water, crimes. Many would like brands to show concern not just for profits but for the communities they serve, and the world we live in.  In fact, more and more, we see a yearning for jobs that have a higher meaning than profit-making.

Christian Sarkar and Phil Kotler have broken down brand activism into its component parts 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. 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 the 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 unionization
  • 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 while others 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 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 unionization. NY Times Blog

Jo Arden points out what has become apparent recently 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 connect to activism – so long as both the activism and the experience are relevant and appealing to the consumer.

She argues that deep customer insight underpins all of this and has never been more important. Sarkar and Kotler make a very interesting point in their groundbreaking 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. They were in part standing side-by-side with consumers who rejected the data and objected to growing health lobby and government intervention.

Her view is that 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 the ideologically liberal view of brand activism. 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.

Alex Lirtsman is of the view that the collision between consumers buying on brand values and the heightened ethical awareness, consumers are voting with their dollars more than ever before. Brand activism is gaining traction—and has the power to shape our economies and culture.

In a recent Forbes study, 75 percent of millennials state it’s important that the brands they buy from give back to society. Tech savvy and social media obsessed generations aren’t afraid to hold brands accountable online and in public spheres, as evidenced by recent boycotts like the Grab Your Wallet campaign against brands with connections to Trump. Inversely, most of the companies who took a clear stance against the travel ban saw their stock prices rise. Companies like Netflix, Starbucks, Facebook, and Microsoft have done quite well since they started taking a position on social injustices, in both positive social mentions and stock performance.

Lirtsman points out that brands like Nike, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) (in Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op), and Starbucks are thriving as they develop a more purposeful voice, without needing to become purely corporate social responsibility (CSR)-driven companies. It’s simple: be true to your values. It’s not all about politics, it’s about understanding that businesses in civil society have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right.

The bulk of the world’s top brands either cater to or employ a diverse, urban, millennial audience that is deeply in-tune with the social and ethical issues of our day. Those audiences don’t just want their employers and favourite brands to reflect their values, they expect them to. And no brand is exempt. Even Skittles spoke out when dragged into the conversation about Syrian refugees. No surprise, it was a hit with frustrated, disenchanted millennials looking for any signs of hope that those with a platform to speak out care about using their position for good.

Every brand has an issue that’s dear to its heart and resonates with their audiences. Finding a cause should not be a problem in the current climate, but having the empathy and self-awareness to speak about it authentically is. It’s about embedding the brand’s core values and exercising vigilance and good governance. The issues can be nuanced, but at the end of the day, authenticity is evident.

There’s an unspoken agreement that a brand’s values are a declaration of what it stands for and seeks to defend. Any brands that advocate and evangelize their diversity, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, and any other important issue of our day should be benefiting from the heightened ethical and moral awareness that we’re seeing. And in an age when buying from a brand is a vote for its values, establishing a clear purpose and authentically supporting it does not just put the brand on the right side of history, it impacts the bottom line.

As Phil Kotler points out (Brand Activism, the Next Stage of Branding) “Marketing and business itself is not working for the many, [but] for the few, While marketing programs have primarily focused on shareholders, they must also be concerned with the people producing the product, using it, being positively and negatively affected by it. Ultimately, these stakeholders influence the brand value and feasibility for market growth. With tools like social media, stakeholders can communicate globally and more efficiently than ever before. If you really want to make more money for the shareholders, you need to change your whole view of the stakeholders.”

The evolution of brand activism in business is an opportunity for differentiation and purpose-driven engagement. This sentiment is explained in “Why Making Money is Not Enough” (Sloan Management Review)

The problem with industrial capitalism today is not the profit motive; the problem is how the profit motive is usually framed. There is a persistent myth in the contemporary business world that the ultimate purpose of a business is to maximize profit for the company’s investors. However, the maximization of profit is not a purpose; instead, it is an outcome. We argue that the best way to maximize profits over the long term is to not make them the primary goal.

Brand activism emerges as a values-driven agenda for companies that care about the future of society and the planet’s health. The underlying force for progress is a sense of justice and fairness for all.


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