During the last few years, especially 2020, there has been an emerging trend among brands – a focus on inclusivity, authenticity, and accountability.

The Black Lives Movement was the beginning of a new era; many brands had taken a stand to speak up against systemic racism and police brutality. Companies made solemn pledges and condemned the actions of police departments who didn’t act in good faith, standing on the front lines of the societal issues that continue to plague our country. They supported the movement by posting blacked out Instagram posts or tweets to create awareness among the public. Some of the world’s biggest brands, including Nike, Amazon, and Disney, instantly jumped on this opportunity to produce inclusive ads and step into the conversation in a display of solidarity.

However, there have been mixed reactions about activism from different brands. Companies like Lego and Ben & Jerry’s were praised for their actions and devotion to create awareness, while others became the subject of scrutiny. Some organizations were called out for using this situation to enhance their image while lacking authenticity in creating genuine change.


The History And Evolution Of Brand Activism

In the 1800s, businessmen like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller donated huge portions of their wealth to education and science advancement. This practice is now considered philanthropy. In the 1950s, a new program called the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program was introduced, and brands used this method to remediate society issues financially. But more importantly, it was a way for them to improve their image to the public. CSR created initiatives to further their marketing and corporate strategies, but brand activism looks at the brands’ values and what the company is doing in accordance.

All genuine efforts that brands perform to remediate any social, political, economic, and environmental challenges that society faces are considered brand activism. It is understandable why brands now consider activism as not only a marketing strategy but also a way to build customer’s trust.

fist in the air against a white backdrop

According to a study done by consulting firm Edelman, 60% of Americans would now boycott or buy from a brand according to its response to the protests against racial injustice. It is much higher with the Millennial demographic – as 78% said that brands should speak out and 70% of 18 to 34 year-olds stated that they would alter their buying patterns if needed.

Consumers want brands to change because they believe that brands can make a real impact with their financial resources.  But companies can also influence the market by creating awareness among the broader public. Society needs trusted brands to assuage its decision paralysis. The initial wave of outrage was not led by any specific institution but by the indignation of people on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. For brands to co-exist in this digital era, they simply can no longer afford to remain silent on these polarizing social issues.


Demand For Authenticity

Some brands feel that taking up social issues and making purpose-driven messages to build their customers’ trust is a new ‘trendy’ marketing tactic. However, brands with no prior record of supporting social equality that began tweeting #BlackLivesMatter may come off as fake or opportunistic to some consumers. The shift in customers’ cultural mindset is already taking place; thus, brands need to add their voice to the already ongoing protest and ensure that their voice is heard consistently.

Other brands who wish to remain silent on the topic hoping that things would return to ‘normal’, would be opting for the temporary and short-sighted solution. Silence is no longer regarded as neutrality among customers – instead, it is now perceived as a statement of its own; that brands do not care about the issue at hand enough to raise their voice and support the cause.

The key to appearing authentic and genuine to the cause is integrating the brand’s core values into the marketing strategy, not to appear as if they are wagon-jumping. One brand that was successfully able to show its authentic support was Ben & Jerry. They had stated that one of their core values was to stop white supremacy and have supported the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016. They have demonstrated that authenticity cannot be built overnight. Being proactive as an organization is arguably the most ideal approach for creating authentic public perception around a brand’s stance on social issues.


Partnerships With Other Organizations or Charities

To further their cause of activism, brands can partner up with different organizations or charities that are aligned with the brand’s core values. Writing a check to a charitable organization a time or two is simply not good enough. Brands have a huge impact on the way people perceive subjects and have the advantage of owning social media channels that can access hundreds of thousands of people a month.

Through awareness and educating the public on those sensitive topics, brands demonstrate their allegiance to the cause, thus creating customer loyalty. Brands can also donate services or volunteering time from employers to help create a long-lasting impact. For example, Walmart has a long-term partnership with Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 local food banks in the US. The company has been donating nine truckloads of food in Oklahoma, where COVID-19 has intensified food insecurity. Another example is Cadbury’s engagement to donate for every Dairy Milk sold to Age UK, an organization built on preventing loneliness among the older generations.

a day without a whopper

A tie-up can also be a great marketing and PR strategy for brands. In September 2019, Burger King stopped selling their classic ‘Whopper’ in Argentina and encouraged their customers to buy Big Mac’s at McDonald’s, as they were donating $2 for every Big Mac sold to Children with Cancer charity. The campaign was very well received and gained great public support, showing that even rival companies can work together successfully for a good cause.


Understanding Customer Values

Knowing the factors that contribute to the decision-making of the brand’s customers is an important source of information that will influence the sales and marketing of the company. These factors may very well determine if consumers choose to advocate for one brand instead of another, and can also influence the process of manufacturing the product or service the brand offers.

NARS Cosmetics was on the receiving end of some backlash from its customers when it began testing its products on animals. They gave a statement explaining the reason for their decision; the company wanted to introduce their products to China, where it is required by law to test products on animals before selling them in the country to ensure that they do not contain any harmful ingredients. Nars’ post on Instagram explaining the situation received more than 8,500 comments, many of which said that they would boycott their products despite the reasoning behind the decision.

Another company that was able to successfully harness its customer’s decision-making mindset is CVS. Their findings indicated that 34% of their customers prefer buying from companies that had truthful ads. CVS then used this insight to launch a campaign called ‘Beauty unaltered,’ where the company analyzed all advertisements in their stores that had altered their models digitally. CVS states that the company believed they were responsible for all information that may be provided through ads and the impact these ads might have on their clients’ health and safety. The company was able to find the perfect match between their brand’s values, their client’s values, and authenticity.

cvs beauty unaltered


How Brand Activism Is Shaping Social Engagement

Before the advent of social media, not every brand was motivated to take a stand on social issues, as most of them did not have a direct communication channel with their customers. As a result, customers did not expect to necessarily hear where their favorite clothing and soda brands stood on specific social issues. Social media armed brands with a powerful tool to establish a direct relationship with their customers, which raises the consumer expectation for brands to voice their opinions on causes that they think are important.

Through the use of social media, consumers have the ability to quickly spread their satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) with a brand through the use of a simple hashtag, keyword, image, or even a mention. Millennial consumers, a demographic that is highly targeted by brands and is often the most difficult to appeal to, also leverage social media to engage with or address a company’s corporate social responsibility actions. This is the overarching tactic in which brand activism falls under, so brands have an increased opportunity to cater to consumer values by contributing to the dialogue.

The controversy surrounding many of our societal issues generates a polarization of responses, regardless of what stance a brand takes on a particular issue. These conditions all but guarantees a significant engagement level, being that over 70% of consumers are willing to voice their opinions directly to a brand regarding its social responsibility actions.


Influencers Can Help Support Brand Activism

Another resource that brands have to further their cause of brand activism is the use of influencers. Influencer impact grew by 57% in 2020, according to the State of Influencer Marketing report of 2021 from Klear Research. During the pandemic, due to tight budgets, many brands had to halt marketing initiatives. However, sponsorships with influencers grew across Stories and Tiktok. From this report, 80% of brands made public statements supporting the BlackLivesMatter movement, and Gen Z’s market share value increased by 9% in 2020. The correlation from these two facts can be deduced that Gen Z’s have some monopoly in the buying market, and what influences their buying is the inclusivity and authenticity of the brand in their activism.

Moreover, through the BLM movement, many public figures expressed their personal opinions on the subject. From Colin Kaepernick to Beyonce, who publicly showed their support to the movement, brands who want to work with influencers must first understand what the influencer stands for and what values are shared between them their audience.

This, however, shouldn’t be solely viewed through the lens of trepidation. While brands must do their due diligence in researching an influencer’s background and perceived values, there is an opportunity present. Companies are now looking at these online creators as a means to communicate their own brand values to different audiences.

A successful campaign that adopted this strategy is the HeForShe Campaign from the UN Women, an international body that aims to protect, promote and support women globally. They decided to partner up with Emma Watson, whose feminist outlook is respected and appreciated by audiences worldwide. As such, she is the perfect influencer to work with to add credibility, relatability, and appeal to the UN Women’s cause.


In Closing

As society is evolving and demanding more inclusivity and greater social responsibility, brands would greatly benefit from integrating activism into their marketing strategy to access the greater public and make a difference in social issues. The power lies in your hands, and with great power comes great responsibility. As we embark on 2021, this increased focus on authentic brand activism is helping to move the needle on creating real social change.

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