BRAND ACTIVISM: A NEW TOOL FOR GLOBAL SOCIAL CHANGE
Thanks to the Millennials and Generation Z, brand purpose has gotten a great deal of recent attention.
Studies from ad agencies, management consulting firms, and recruiting firms have all revealed the importance of clearly articulating the aspirational, elevated vision of the brand’s reason for being (Sisodia, Sheth, and Wolfe, 2007; Deloitte, 2014; Pearlman, 2018).
These studies have linked brand purpose to profits, competitive advantage, and the ability to attract and retain employee talent (especially of the Millennial variety).
U.S. data on consumers also point to the power of not just having a vision for the brand’s purpose, but pushing brand purpose to taking stands. A study by Sprout Social found that consumers want brands to speak to their brand purpose, putting their clout and voice to issues relevant to their stated purpose.
The Sprout survey revealed that 66% of consumers felt it important for brands to take public stands on social media on social and political issues (Sprout Social, 2017).
Further, beyond just the desire for brands to take a stand, still other research found that when brands take strong public stances on issues, consumers buy more from them (Korschun, Rafieian, and Aggarwal, 2019).
The notion of brands championing social, environment, and political causes is not a new phenomenon.
European and British brands Benetton and Body Shop were at it in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Benetton with its multi-racial United Colors of Benetton advertising campaign confronting racism and promoting multi-culturalism. Body Shop with its anti-cruelty, environmentally safe approach to beauty and skin care products. Both brands’ actions (communications and products) spoke to walking the talk around their brand purpose.
In the current environment, however, brand purpose has become elevated, supercharged by sociocultural norms as well as social media
platforms that weren’t available when Benetton was changing the world one billboard at at a time.
Viewing their brands as agents for global change, some pacesetters have evolved brand purpose to the even more forceful brand activism.
So what is brand activism exactly?
According to Fast Company, brand activism is “when a company takes concrete actions to advance a cause or issue position” (Mintz, 2016).
Stated a bit differently, Hodge (2018) defines brand activism as “when a company seeks to have an impact on a social, economic, environmental, or political problem.”
Combining the two notions, brand activism entails successive, specific actions that advance collective action to make progress on meta-level problems.
Brand activism is clearly initiated by the company, but it relies, in no small part, on the actions of consumers to support and join the cause, which is why social media has become the tinder that brands use to spark consumer engagement.
Patagonia, an American brand with global distribution of outdoor apparel, offers up a case study of the new form of brand activism. Billing itself as ‘The Activist Company,’ Patagonia’s stated brand purpose is to save the planet.
A super lofty brand mission to be sure, but it has backed up its purpose by living to its core values over its nearly 50-year history.
– Build the best product
– Cause no unnecessary harm
– Use business to protect nature
– Not bound by convention
While the company has consistently worked on product development, business operations, and even encouraged consumer behavior to live to these values (side note, the company once ran a full page ad saying ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ to remind consumers that the best thing for the planet is to use less), Patagonia’s latest foray into legal action against the US government, has clearly elevated its response to the level of brand activism.
In an unprecedented move, on December 4, 2017, President Trump rescinded 85% of the acreage under national monument protections in Bears Ears and 39% in Grand-Escalante National Monuments and lifted restrictions on motorized vehicles and livestock grazing for the land that remained (Korte 2017).
Opponents of the decision swiftly condemned it as opening public lands to development, mining, and drilling. Patagonia joined the opposition in an equally unprecedented move. It filed a lawsuit against the federal government to restore the initial protections granted under the Obama administration and enjoined its customers to respond as well. The home page of Patagonia.com and its Twitter post aggressively proclaimed its call to action with the message “The President Stole Your Land.”
Thanks to Patagonia’s efforts, it encouraged over 155,000 people to write to the federal government in protest of the action. The case is still making its way through the courts, but legal scholars have noted there is no precedent for Patagonia’s aggressive brand activism.
The results of taking such a strong environmental and political stance? The day after its provocative “The President Stole Your Land” communique, a third-party data firm estimated that Patagonia sales in all non-Patagonia retailers increased 5 to 7 times higher than a typical day (Wolf, 2017). Far from alienating consumers and prompting backlash or protests, the direct-to-consumer strength and sales bumps in response to activist stands suggests that its actions are attracting and retaining a brand affinity base.
The question remains, though, can and should all brands engage in brand activism?
The tool is still new, so a robust understanding of how it operates is still emerging. The developing understanding, however, suggests that values-driven brands that have the resources to mobilize and act have the greatest opportunity for making an impact with brand activism as well as reaping the rewards.
In fact, research has found that consumers expect values-driven brands expected to act when they have the ability to do so, and punish those that elect not to despite their stated values-based brand purpose. (Korshun, 2017)
That said, performance-driven (in contrast to values-driven) brands still have role to play in that performance-based brand positions often ladder up to individual emotional or social good payoffs.
While consumers may not require them to elevate their initiatives all the way to a brand activism campaign to secure their purchase intent or loyalty, they do expect them to make good on their brand purpose in communications, policies, and even product development.
For example, Honey-Maid Graham Crackers positions itself as having wholesome ingredients for wholesome families, a product-based, performance-driven brand purpose. However, it lives to that purpose in a socially inclusive manner.
Its 2014 and 2016 TV advertising visually depicts multiracial, and same-sex families as it conveyed its wholesome heritage that has remained the same even as what constitutes a wholesome family has broadened and grown. Similarly, Target’s slogan of Expect More, Pay Less, attempts to encapsulate its brand purpose of providing great shopping for truly every person. Implicit in that is its brand purpose commitment to design, diversity, and inclusivity – expecting more in terms of aesthetic and practical value and who is welcome and celebrated by the brand.
In support of its values-driven brand purpose, Target has developed a reputation for being LGBTQ friendly and created a line of gender inclusive apparel for Pride Month this past summer. It also led the U.S. retail industry in its progressive gender identity-based policies on bathroom and changing room use.
The bottom line on effectiveness of brand activism as a tool?
Not surprisingly, it boils down to brand positioning.
Examine the brand’s purpose and positioning promise it makes to its customers. The more values-driven the positioning and purpose, the more consumers want and will reward brands that take a stand through activism.
The world may also benefit from brands taking stands and tackling thorny issues alongside their customers, one activist step at a time.