Brand Activism the Breakthrough Concept in Marketing Revisited

Last year I posted a blog on brand activism, the breakthrough concept in marketing management.  My position as a public sector and non-profit marketer was that this was clearly going to be a big opportunity for non-profits and governments with major causes who are looking to partner with the private sector.

I also mentioned in my blog, that brand activism was going to grow because the millennial generation who 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 millennials are 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 so 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) and in Canada, Mountain Coop (1970’s) 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 media 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

Well here we are in 2018 and we are starting to see some new players getting involved in Brand Activism and some of the older players are becoming more courageous.

Here are some examples:

Levi Strauss & Co. is taking a stand against gun violence, an unexpectedly political move from the all-American denim company that could turn off some customers — but also win it points with a new segment of shoppers.

They are pledging more than $1 million to support non-profits and youth activists who are working to end gun violence. They are also partnering with Michael Bloomberg to help create a coalition of business leaders who support gun control measures and encouraging employees to get involved in political causes.

“The gun violence epidemic in America has hit a point where something has to be done,” chief executive Chip Bergh said in an interview. “It’s inevitable that we’re going to alienate some consumers, but we can no longer sit on the sidelines and remain silent on this issue.”

Levi Strauss is the latest in a string of high-profile companies, including Nike, Patagonia, Yuengling and REI, to wade into highly political debates. The wave of corporate activism, experts say, is one way for businesses to connect with politically minded shoppers, even if they risk offending others. Either way, they say, consumers are increasingly comfortable voting with their wallets — and aren’t afraid to support or boycott companies based on their views.

“This is a sea change in activism like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at public relations firm Weber Shandwick. “CEOs are not just raising flags anymore, they’re actually taking action and asking their customers to do the same.

Retailers are realizing they can afford to alienate some U.S. consumers as they look abroad for a bigger chunk of their growth. Levi Strauss, which also manufactures the brands Dockers and Denizen, made the bulk of its sales — 52 percent — outside the United States last year. Sales grew 13 percent in France, Germany, Mexico and the U.K., compared to 2 percent growth in the United States.

Levi’s Bergh said he doesn’t want to repeal the Second Amendment. Instead, he’s hoping to get government leaders to take specific steps to reduce gun violence, such as requiring criminal background checks of gun purchasers or limiting gun sales to those age 21 and older.

He said the company had not conducted market research on its consumers’ views on gun control, but he noted that Levi’s “is a very democratic brand” that cuts across income levels and other demographics. The company, which rose to popularity a century ago by catering to cowboys and lumberjacks in the Wild West, has shifted its strategy in recent years to appeal to higher-end, more urban shoppers

Bergh said he’d had a nagging feeling that he should do more, particularly in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.”This is an issue that has been bubbling up for a while, but now is the time for gun control,” he said. “My personal view is that companies have an obligation to make the world a better place. They have to do more than just make a profit.”

He joins a growing list of business leaders who are speaking out on a range of contested issues, from immigration reform to environmental causes.

“It started with millennials and now it’s everyone: People care a lot about what the companies behind their products stand for,” said Anthony Johndrow, chief executive of Reputation Economy Advisors, a New York-based firm. “There’s a sense of urgency as brands try to figure out what they believe in.”

Sometimes, he said, the answer is simple, like when outdoors goods retailers Patagonia, REI and the North Face publicly denounced President Trump’s 2017 executive order slashing the size of two national monuments in Utah. “The president stole your land,” Patagonia posted on its website.

Nike, meanwhile, triggered controversy when it announced that Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, would be the face of its latest “Just Do It” advertising campaign.

There were strong feelings on both sides. Some cut the Nike “swoosh” off their socks or set their sneakers on fire. Others said they’d be stocking up at the nearest Nike store. Although the company’s stock initially took a 3 percent hit, the move may ultimately be good for business. Nike’s online sales soared 31 percent after the announcement, according to data from Edison Trends, a San Francisco-based firm.

“It’s become part business calculus, part strategic gut-level assessment of your conviction and passions,” said Horst, former chief marketing officer for Hershey.

In Levi’s case, Bergh says it’s important for the company to “do the right thing,” even if not everyone agrees. When the Boy Scouts of America banned gay troop leaders in the late 1970s, Levi Strauss pulled all financial support from the organization. The backlash from consumers was swift, but “we knew it was the right thing to do,” Bergh said.

“Twenty years from now, when people look back,” he added, “we want them to say, ‘Levi’s was on the right side of good.”

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