Brand Activism Is Trending, but How Can You Really Make a Difference?

In this article, we dive into what brand activism actually is and what to consider before getting involved. Additionally, we've also covered the answers to the audience questions asked during our webinar on brand activism.
Tondreanna Esquilin
Tondreanna Esquilin
October 9, 2020 - 8 min. read

2020 is arguably the year of the 21st Century for global activism and honestly, it seems to be a great thing. But this has brought into question: where do brands stand on the figurative “scale” for activism and how do they get involved?

In this article, we are going to dive into what brand activism actually is, what to consider before getting involved, and your next steps to start taking action on the causes you believe in!

So, what is brand activism?

Brand activism is when “a business makes an effort to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, and/or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to promote or impede improvements in society.”

While yes, a quick Google search can tell you this, it is important to note the various verticals within brand activism because depending on your company’s actions/core values, one form of brand activism may fit better than another.

For example, if you are a company that thrives off of fracking, maybe environmental activism isn’t your thing. But perhaps social activism is! It’s all about evaluating where you currently stand aligning those values with the form of activism that suites.

Before getting involved…

While partaking in a cause that you care about is exciting and you’d like to start asap, let’s take a second to focus on some preliminary steps that will help prevent your brand from ending up in hot water.

Before you go out simply posting a black square to your IG feed or changing your profile picture to a fist in support of racial equality, you must ask yourself: is this resulting in real change or is this just performative? As marketers, it’s easy to say that 80% of what we do is perform, putting on a show of how great our products are. But that is not the purpose of brand activism.

Performative activism is “done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause” and that can get you into some deep sh*t. So, let’s look at what you can do to avoid putting on a performance, and ensure you’re devoted to a cause!

1. Start internally

That’s right, take a look inside before you start projecting beliefs outside. The last thing you want is for your internal values to not align with what you’re publicly supporting. If you’re preaching about BLM and inclusivity, make sure your programs, hiring processes, and hierarchal structure reflects that.

2. Define your purpose

This goes hand-in-hand with what we discussed earlier with choosing the kind of activism that aligns with your company’s core values. Do not try and tackle everything at once, you’re bound to drop a ball. Start by choosing one cause you’d like to focus on, and from there, you can then expand as you gain credibility in the activism world.

3. Air your dirty laundry

Oh yeah, probably the hardest part: admit when you’ve been wrong in the past. It’s better to call yourself out before someone else does. If you have had a social, political, or environmental controversy in the past that will directly contradict with what you’re currently preaching, call it out! It’s better to reflect on when you’ve done wrong and have a plan to change than to cover it up with performative activism.

4. Research. Research. Research.

While this may seem obvious, it is important to emphasize this point—especially when you’re diving into a cause you’re not that familiar with. As a brand, your voice is influential, and you want to ensure that what you are putting out there, especially when it comes to sensitive causes, is nothing short of accurate and understanding.

Research goes beyond an internet surf, involve co-workers or customers who hold these beliefs/first-hand experiences to help your message seem as authentic and compassionate as possible.

5. Show some results

It’s nice to talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? Messaging will only go so far. Eventually, your audience will want to see how you are contributing to a cause, beyond your words. Are you matching employee donations to organizations? Maybe dedicating a volunteer day for employees to plant trees? Whatever your cause maybe—are you actually doing anything about it? Make sure you plan out what your next steps are going to be beyond your Instagram post.

In short: Don’t just make noise. Commit to what your company believes in, be resourceful, and turn your purpose into action. Even if you’re a brand that has been relatively silent about social and political issues, it’s never too late to take a stand for what you believe in and why it’s important to you. 

On August 27th, we hosted a webinar all about brand activism with Kate Levine, formerly from The Body Shop, and Mary Noel from DoSomething.org., where we discussed the intersection of brand activism and marketing.

Sharing is caring, which is why we’re covering the most relevant questions asked at the webinar (and their answers!!) down below – so scroll on!

Q1. How do you work with people inside who do not believe in the stand or taking a position (in fact, they are opposed to the idea of participation or support) and have serious reservations of going ahead with the brand activism?

You should always ensure you have a period of employee engagement before going public with brand activism. This enables you to set out to your colleagues and get their support for the problem that you want to fix, what you aim to do, and why you are well-placed to do it. Your activism should always be connected to your brand purpose ie the stand you are taking needs to relate to what you stand for, and why you exist. Making that argument clear will help the doubters to understand. Town Hall meetings are a good place to launch the work internally and try to get your CEO to back it publicly early on. Activism should be led from the top. It’s also really important to demonstrate that you are well-prepared for any possible public backlash (these do happen, so be prepared!). – Kate Levine

Q2. There was an acceleration of post-COVID-19 radical transparency and a positive impact on social communities and the planet. Do you think governments should support those? Any examples?

Without a doubt, government plays a key role to play and must support these efforts. In many ways, COVID-19 has opened our eyes as a society to the longstanding cracks in the system and inequities that the systems around us have been built upon. It’s also opened our eyes to what is possible—we can act collectively to change the trajectory we’re on, and its collective action that is required to address the challenges we face: the climate crisis, racial injustice, wealth inequality among them. Governments have a major role to play because there are necessary changes that need to be made at the policy level. The European Union’s Green Deal as well as the steps New Zealand has taken to require climate risk reporting are two examples. We cannot address the climate crisis without meaningful action on a global scale—this requires governments to enact policies that refigure our operating system as a society to have a positive impact. – Mary Noel

Q3. Can we calculate the ROI /SROI for brand activism involvement?

The challenge with ROI and brand activism is that it’s a question of short term vs. long term thinking in many instances. You can measure the ROI of a particular campaign—from social chatter and brand awareness to direct impact on purchases made. However, real and meaningful brand activism requires more than one campaign in isolation. It’s really about what are you committed to over the long term—how does what you stand for show up in all your brand touchpoints and ways of doing business? That’s more of a long-term calculation and is very much about brand-building VS any one-off campaign, but the findings so far point to purpose and brand activism as an undeniable driver of business growth. The Kantar Purpose 2020 Study showed brands which are considered purposeful grew 2x twice as fast as the rest. – Mary Noel

Q4. Any information about ROI for CSR? The CFO will be the first one to ask that question.

This will depend on what CSR program you are running and its aim. For example, you might switch the packaging of your project to less harmful material. It might require investment for the first few years but will eventually deliver savings because the material gets cheaper over time, and you use less of it. You would therefore measure those costs (and the reduction), and you’d also measure how you communicate the change. This would include internal communications – you’d measure employee engagement using tools you can develop with your HR/People function – as well as external communications: you’d measure customer engagement and increased sales; influencer engagement; plus stakeholder engagement – you might want to speak about the pro-environmental switch with your local politician/s, with media and/or with environmental NGOs and campaigners. You should measure all these meetings and discussions and any changes in the perception of your company.

If you run an activist campaign where the aim is to raise awareness of an issue that needs to change and to promote that change – could be legislative or attitudinal or behavioral – again, you want to measure employee, customer, and stakeholder engagement. This may not give you an immediate financial ROI – this is brand-building work, and that takes time and patience! If your activist campaign is connected to your company’s purpose (as it should be) that will help in your conversations with your CFO. – Kate Levine

Q5. Trying to relate brand activism to a brand from the dating apps segment.What could brand activism look like for them?

Interesting! A good place to start would be to brainstorm what the societal issues are around dating apps. For example, could they help remove barriers for LGBT+ users? Do women find them empowering (or not)? Then consider these issues in conjunction with your own company’s stated purpose (why you exist). You could create a survey of your employees and/or your customers to ask them which of the top five shortlisted issues they would like to see you take a stand. – Kate Levine

Q6. It seems (to me) that a lot of American companies are on the performative activism bandwagon — while NOT hiring black people, for example. Why do companies not realize we can see who they hire on LinkedIn and via certain profiles on their website?

While this is certainly the case across many companies, I’m hopeful that the current reckoning over racial injustice in America will be a major turning point. Many companies shared a statement in support and solidarity of Black Lives Matter and immediately faced questions around their own bias, internal practices, and actions towards anti-racism. Now, they have to prove that they mean the words they shared—because more consumers are going to hold them to account and make their purchase decisions accordingly. As consumers (and employees!) continue to demand brands do better—including diversifying their team and ensuring equity within their ranks and leadership all the way to the impact of the products and services they produce—there is real power to redefine ‘business as usual’ at these companies and demand they back up their words with action otherwise, they risk becoming obsolete. – Mary Noel

Alright, you’ve done the groundwork, what’s next? Get out there and in the name of Nike, just do it!

Finally, Brand Activism Is Driving More Meaningful Engagement!
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