Rethinking Brand Activism

June 15, 2020 | Share this article

Over the past few weeks, many brands have spoken up in support of the ongoing civil movement against systemic racism and police brutality. From overarching statements of solidarity to solemn pledges of actions, the responses from brands have been varied as marketers rushed to stay on the right side of history, and the reaction to this latest wave of brand activism is expectedly mixed. For every Lego or Ben & Jerry’s that is being praised for their actions, there are brands that are being called out for their opportunistic response and corporate hypocrisy.

Why do some brands get it right while others get it wrong? Is it truly necessary for all brands to pipe up and insert themselves into the cultural discourse? Are there legitimate reasons for companies to take on brand activism beyond financial incentives? It is time to rethink brand activism.

The Evolution of Brand Trust
In a way, it is understandable why so many brands have all suddenly discovered brand activism in the wake of widespread protests. 60% of Americans would now boycott or buy from a brand based on its response to the protests against racial injustice, according to a recent poll conducted by consulting firm Edelman. The number is even higher amongst the coveted younger demographic, as 78% of millennials said brands must speak out and 70% of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they would change their buying patterns as a result.

There’s a reason for this. Consumers want brands to speak out because they believe that brands have an opportunity to make a real impact. Sprout Social’s 2019 study revealed that 66% of consumers believe that brands who speak out can facilitate real change, and 67% say that brands are effective at increasing awareness of issues when they use their platforms, especially social media. For every major consumer brand, the platform your brand has comes with a corresponding responsibility to speak up and lead positive changes.

In today’s politically polarized climate, brand trust is consumer access, as we pointed out in our 2018 Outlook report. Brand trust is not only built on confidence in the product or service itself, but also confidence in the ethics and politics of the company behind it. Today, consumers increasingly choose products based on environmental sustainability, workplace equality, or to which political parties the founders donate. But it wasn’t always like this.

Before the age of social media, not every brand was compelled to take a stand on social issues, because most brands did not have a direct communication channel with their customers, and, in turn, customers had no expectation to hear where their favorite soap or snack brands stand on certain social issues. Social media granted brands a powerful tool to establish a direct relationship with their customers, and it also raised the consumer expectation for brands to speak up on causes that they care about. As we pointed out in last year’s Outlook report, every consumer brand that matters is now a lifestyle brand, with purpose-driven messaging underlying not only the products, but the media that surrounds them.

This need to hear brands speak up and reaffirm their values is further amplified in the age of anxiety. Constantly overwhelmed by the choices that the internet has made available, we are in need of trusted brands to act as curators to assuage our decision paralysis. All culture is now digital culture, and digital creativity is increasingly being leveraged for civic engagement. The protests are now being organized on encrypted messaging apps and semi-public Google Docs documents. TikTok has become the go-to platform for youth activism against racism and police brutality, and activists are using YouTube’s AdSense tools to generate donations by uploading lengthy videos with frequent ads.

The initial wave of outrage following the killing of George Floyd was not led by news organizations or government institutions, but by people sharing their indignation on Twitter and Facebook en masse. To co-exist in the same digital space, brands can no longer afford to stay silent on social issues. If brands want the privilege of cashing in on memes and participating in the fun side of digital culture, then they will need to embrace the responsibility of joining more serious conversations unfolding on social platforms as well, for it is all part of the deal of establishing a direct channel for brand-consumer interaction.

The Need for Authenticity
Taking up social causes and using purpose-driven brand messages to build consumer trust may seem like the marketing tactic du jour, but the sad truth is, if your brand is only speaking up now, then you’re already too late. Without a record of previously supporting the black community and racial equality, brands that are now tweeting #BlackLivesMatter often come off as hollow and opportunistic. Nike’s 2018 ad featuring Colin Kaepernick was the first major brand campaign to take on the issue publicly, and many of the world’s largest consumer brands have stayed silent on the topic of racially motivated police violence, until now.

Still, better late than never. The cultural shift is already underway, and brands have to take a stand now to build up an equity to speak up later. It is important to speak up now and keep speaking up consistently over time. To stay silent and hope things will somehow “blow over” would be incredibly short-sighted and detrimental to brand-building, for silence itself is no longer neutral. Instead, it is perceived by consumers to be its own kind of statement. Social progress is a long, historical arc that bends toward justice, but nothing bends towards justice without people making the effort to bend it.
The key to authenticity is to build cause marketing into your core brand values, so that when you do speak up on social issues, it doesn’t come off as wagon-jumping. Ben and Jerry’s has the equity to put out a call to dismantle white supremacy because social justice has long been part of its core brand values and they have been consistently supporting the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016.

Authenticity is not something that can be borrowed or manufactured overnight, and support for other progressive causes such as environmental protection and LGBT rights does not automatically absolve brands from staying silent now. If anything, a brand that has made a showing of supporting other causes is expected to join the fight against racism and police brutality. The best way to do so is to frame the support through the lens of intersectionality. For example, if a brand has been an advocate for raising awareness around climate change, they can provide support through the lens of how environmental problems disproportionality affect people of color.

Brand self awareness is also an important part of authenticity. Corporate hypocrisy destroys all sense of authenticity, and they must be addressed along with pledging support. This is why companies like Amazon, Ralph Lauren, and Next Door have been criticized for brushing aside their past controversies and problematic internal policies to issue an empty statement of support. Pepsi opted for a lowkey retweet of a LinkedIn post written by its CEO on its corporate account, lest people bring up its infamously misguided ad starring Kendall Jenner that trivialized protests against police brutality.

The Demand for Accountability
A new trend that has emerged in this wave of brand activism is the demand for accountability. Denouncing racism on social media is not brand activism without actions to back it up, and concrete actions are what today’s consumers are demanding. If your brand is all words and no action, the performative nature will only call your social credibility and authenticity into question.

Calling out corporate hypocrisy has never been easier. The Internet never forgets, and the latest “this you?” meme is tailor-made for exposing brands for their problematic pasts and holding them accountable to do better. While donations and education are key brand actions for short-term accountability, companies need to go beyond simply opening their checkbooks for one-time donations. Internal policy changes for racial inclusivity, product review for racial bias, and expanding social responsibility are all recommended tactics for examining brand purpose alignment and implementing actionable solutions. Purpose-driven marketing can not just stay within the marketing department; instead, it needs to be embraced by the whole company as a key value to work towards.

Cynics may claim that, in a capitalist system, all acts of brand activism are done in the ultimate pursuit of profits by way of pleasing the consumers. While that may have some truth to it, the end justifies the means. In the long run, however, a re-evaluation of business model and company goals might be inevitable. As corporate America grows stronger in its influence on policies and culture, it is everyone’s responsibility to embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) and contribute to the greater social good by building CSR into the company structure. Not every company needs to become a B-corp dedicated to social causes, but some tweaking of how the company bottom line is being calculated will go a long way to reinforce accountability from the inside out.

While most brand responses to the ongoing civic movement have been reactive and somewhat perfunctory, this crashing wave of holding brands accountable on social media could lead to some deeper reflections and resulting in substantial changes to make future brand activism more proactive and authentic. If these values are embedded in your brand DNA and operations, great! if you haven’t started yet, now is the time to do so.