As Christina Du Toit (2016) states in the beginning of his book on Brand Activism, “It’s easy to portray corporations as evil. After all, it doesn’t take much digging to find countless examples of companies that have perpetrated massive fraud in order to enrich a few at the expense of many. The financial meltdown of 2008 showed that there are no limits to human greed.” That said, it can be understandable how shifting public opinion towards showcasing the good deeds of corporations can be a hard task to achieve, given that the public is normally geared towards focusing on what is being done wrong rather than the opposite, especially when the stage is set for corporations to be the bad guy of the plot. However, corporations and brands now have a chance to be on the right side of history, by taking a social stand and making a difference, brands are not only repositioning themselves towards achieving a greater objective than just catering to people’s basic needs, they are also catering to their inherent and evolving need to do business with brands that have a purpose and not just a functional benefit. Du Toit (2016) raises a valid point about the expectations of a new generation; a generation that expects “a brand to have purpose that transcends being just a product, a purpose that is reflected in the people and the culture.” That is why, even brands and corporations that are inherently viewed in a negative light are seeking to tell a positive, perhaps for the first time in their history.
Public skepticism however is ever more prominent and reflected in this new generation of consumers. “Contradictions are inevitable here. Activism as consumerism. Celebrity humanitarianism. Commodity-driven social resistance. Neoliberal activism. Yet, perhaps the most important insight […] is that seeing it all as contradiction does not help us anymore, that a sense of contradiction is derived from remaining in an outdated mode of thinking. We cannot dismiss these modes as simply hypocrisy, incorporation, or corporate appropriation. They demand a more complex, less cynical, less dismissive approach. Indeed, these very practices of consumer activism demand a recognition of the key relationship of consumerism and affect, the emotional content of consumer transactions. They thus demand new models for taking the emotional effects of consumer transactions seriously rather than seeing them as uncritical and acquiescent.”
According to Banet-Weiser and Mukherjee (2018), the need to do good in today’s consumerist society means that both brand and consumer want to stand for something. “Part of the discourse of contemporary neoliberal capital, then, is the notion that profit is achieved not by ruthless, inhumane practices or by unrestrained avarice but, rather, by both the corporation and the consumer acting “virtuously.””
– The new age of marketing, shift focus on humankind & activism and the importance of putting people first (not consumers) “Creativity has the power to transform human behavior”
– Marketing 3.0 is about people, not consumers (more from Marketing 3.0 book)
– A skeptical audience (brands need to pay extra attention on their stances, activism campaign execution and chosen endorsers; to solidify credibility)
– Difference between CSR and Brand Activism
How does social purpose differ from CSR?
Social purpose has to be relevant to the company’s core business. All companies have to think about how to engage radically with society.
This means engaging with stakeholders on their agenda and adapting your business strategy accordingly.
The strategy should not just think about the supply chain or sourcing; it also needs to relate to all the people you interact with, both inside the company and outside of it.
What is branding? A company brand is at once definable — the American Marketing Association defines it as a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers,’, and at other times it is something else . . . not completely definable. As Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, says: “Branding is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
What is activism? “Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, and/or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to make improvements in society. Forms of activism range from writing letters to newspapers or to politicians, political campaigning, and economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing businesses, rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.”
How do branding and activism work together then? Brand activism is synonyms with the social purpose of a brand, and is generally done through advertising campaigns that position this purpose as the activist mantra of a brand.
Understanding how brand activism works
Kotler & Sarkar (2017) established a framework to aid brands in developing activist strategies, stating that activism does not need to be, and was not always, progressive.
Activism has unfortunately taken many regressive turns in previous years and continues to do so. The two main examples of regressive activism are Big Pharma & Big Tobacco, with the later lobbying governments for years on end (and until this day) towards loosening the sanctions on tobacco products, claiming first that cigarettes were even healthy despite what their own research conveyed.
“On the progressive activism side, we see more and more companies seeking to have an impact on the biggest societal problems. These companies have a larger purpose than simple profit-seeking, and are increasingly seen as leaders in their fields.”; “Brand activism emerges as a values-driven agenda for companies that care about the future of society and the planet’s health. The underlying force for progress is a sense of justice and fairness for all.”
Brand activism: A trend or an answer to the demands of a generation?
According to a report by Havas (2016), people are feeling deeply dissatisfied with the present and ambivalent about the future. While consumers are embracing all the new technologies and conveniences that are so much a part of the modern lifestyle, they are also wistful about those aspects of life—including simplicity, intellectuality, and strong ties to nature’s rhythms—that are slipping away. There is a growing sense that we need to take some time, individually and as a society, to think about the direction in which we are moving and whether we are going to be happy with where we end up. Many are questioning whether we can put the brakes on our current dizzying rate of “progress” and find a better, healthier, more satisfying way in which to move forward.
The report states that an average of 86% of interviewees believe that “in many ways, society is moving in the wrong direction”. The same percentage also agree that “change is good” but less than 40% of people worldwide trust their government and only 27% believe their government will be the greatest agent of change. Yet, people fear they cannot bring about to change alone, which is why they expect corporations to do their part. 84% believe that “companies have the responsibility to do more than just generate profit”. The younger the interviewees, the more they believe that companies have a duty to do better, which means that Brand Activism is not only “a nice to have” but a standard that consumers believe they should abide by.
This is especially reflected in the Millennial & Z Generations, according to another report by Havas (2011), “it is time to dismiss the notion of disengaged youth. Contrary to outdated stereotypes of youth apathy, this study reveals a generation intent on creating meaningful change—only through social media and pragmatic day-to-day consumer actions rather than violent revolution or traditional political channels. This is a generation made powerful not just by their sheer numbers but by their abiding sense of personal responsibility to their communities and world, their knowledge of global issues, and their fluency with tools—especially social media—that allow them to act individually and also to join together to effect positive change. For brands, it is essential to understand young people’s views and have the foresight to engage with them in genuinely meaningful ways”. Millennials are realistic, but still hopeful. They are keenly aware of the issues we all face and will continue to face, with most believing the world will be more dangerous, less peaceful, and more polluted in 20 years. But that hasn’t made them cynical. Nearly all millennials surveyed believe their generation has the power to change the world. And power for this generation is not necessarily about wealth and celebrity. Today’s heroes are individuals who have broken through the data glut and societal inertia to help others and push for change. Their role models are people like TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and pro-democracy activist Wael Ghonim.
In-depth understanding of brand activism can be defined as a ‘rapport’ between a brand and its core consumers, driven by undertaken efforts to change attitudes and perceptions, build trust, and loyalty, and generate long-term sustainable engagement. Beyond the answer to the demands of a generation and the implied profits from it, it is also a proven way to generate solid brand loyalty. Following a report by JWT’s Intelligence unit on the future of loyalty (2016), the key concept is “emotional loyalty” rather than “transactional” loyalty. “We get bombarded with so many commercial messages and discounts and coupons and vouchers, so much is about the transactional stuff – it’s about price, or its about location, it’s about product.” Says Roberts, whose firm has implemented in-store loyalty schemes for retailers such as Lidl and Co-op in Europe. He adds that, when shoppers are asked about what drives emotional loyalty, they respond that the two big drivers are “the in-instore experience – is it nice, is it better, is it friendlier? And how much the retailer cares. Not just about the individuals as shoppers, but also do they care what they’re eating, do they care about the environment, do they care about the suppliers, about the employees? So there is a real emotional driver to loyalty”. That said, the overall activity scope of a company or brand, its shared values, mission statement, long-term vision as well as sustainability efforts, are likely to define its perception by prospective consumers, and will therefore drive loyalty and build viable trust. The key operating traits of a brand, coupled with its concrete actions towards society, communities where it operates, the environment, as well as the overall well-being of our planet, will largely affect the way consumers perceive it. Furthermore, in increasingly ‘aware’ societies and consumer bases, it is also likely that the latter will observe a brand’s practices across the entirety of its supply and/or value chain, from the manufacturer all the way to the consumer.
Brand Activism Categories
Brand Activism topics can be categorized into six categories as per Kotler and Sarkar (2017):
• Social activism includes areas such as equality and societal rights, such as gender activism, LGBT rights, racial diversity, etc. It also includes developmental and communal issues such as the right education, economic growth, women’s rights for decent work and equal pay, to name a few.
• Legal activism deals with the laws and policies that impact companies, such as taxation, workplace, and employment laws.
• Business activism is about governance – corporate organization, CEO pay, worker compensation, syndicates, organized associations, labor and union relations, etc.
• Economic activism may include minimum wage and tax policies that impact income equality and redistribution of wealth.
• Political activism covers lobbying, voting, voting rights, and policy making in general (gerrymandering, campaign finance, etc).
• Environmental activism deals with conservation, environmental, land-use, air and water pollution laws and policies, as well as relevant issues such as waste management, preservation of biodiversity, waste management, etc.
For the sake of this study, we will mainly focus on social activism examples as they have been prevalent in resent advertising campaigns.
1. Same-Sex Marriage
a. Negative Example: Chick-Fil-A
The COO of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, made derogatory comments towards same-sex marriage, suggesting the wrath of God would all those supporting gay marriage.
On such topics, with millennials identifying with consistently more liberal norms, it is not of wise business sense to involve personal opinions in company policies, noting that a CEO is regarded as the frontline of any given company – therefore, any words and opinions linked to him will be automatically mirrored to the company he represents, triggering boycotts and protests against said company.
Following a poll by Du Toit (2016); where even conservatives would agree to support same sex-marriage, proves that the stance Chick-Fil-A took makes little business sense, not only excluding liberals but also swaying conservatives as their current & potential customers. “With over 93% supporting legalized gay marriage, it isn’t hard for companies to adopt popular opinion.”, also confirming that same-sex marriage is an easy and low risk stance to adopt in the US, probably the reason why so many brands have done so, with various levels of success.
“Activism is about enabling change, even the type of change you may not want to support”, which is something Dan Cathy has failed to understand prior to his statements. The role of brands in shaping societal norms, i.e. acceptance of same-sex marriage, has become a reality. As the author mentions: “It is likely however that Corporate Activism, […] has helped shape the notion that gay marriage is not only legal but a social norm, much like a “traditional” marriage”
b. Negative Example: Barilla
The President of Barilla, Guido Barilla, said on live radio that he would not consider featuring same-sex couples in the brand’s ads, as it being a family company, he prefers the portrayal of a “traditional family”.
Again, such comments from a high-management figure cannot but be projected onto the company and brand he represents, noting that in the case of Barilla, as a family business, and with a president going by the same last name as the brand, the words could as well have been uttered in a TV ad. Twitter was on fire with tweets such as “As a family and future oriented father I will ask my wife and 2 kids to trash any product related to your brand”, and images being shared on social media with Barilla products and alternative slogans: “Would you like some homophobia with that?” (image featuring the Barilla logo, bowtie pasta, and in the same style as original Barilla ads). Barilla did try to do damage control after the public outcry (explain steps they undertook).
The alternative to accepting a social movement, or staying silent, is to publicly show displeasure, similarly to Chick-Fil-A and Barilla, which as we have seen creates high dissonance & negative reactions. Both companies endured the ill-devised statements of their respective management figures, though the two companies have not themselves taken a hostile stance with regards to the sensitive topics in question. However, what is even more interesting is to look at companies who loudly take a stand (for or against) a social issue and who launch awareness campaigns willing to take a public position on a controversy. This after all is a far greater form of brand activism than merely trying to do damage control. The difference here is that the former case is merely a traditional reaction, or what we call crisis management, whereas the latter is a form of self-initiated activism with unknown risks.
c. Positive Example: Stolichnaya
The company’s CEO took a public and blunt stand, at great personal risk, against the Russian (and Putin’s) government’s stance opposing same-sex marriage. (give more background on the established anti-gay laws).
Because of these laws, Western activists initiated a “Dump Russian Vodka” campaign, which was relatively impactful in boycotting Russian vodka. Stolichnaya’s CEO’s answer was heartfelt and very public, with a statement which was featured on the brand’s website: “Stolichnaya Premium vodka stands strong & proud with the global LGBT community against the attitude and actions of the Russian Government.” which went against the limited freedom of expression in Russia, particularly when it comes to criticizing the Russian government.
The actions of Stolichnaya were openly supportive of a controversial cause, turning them into a symbol of daring brand activism in a place where not many risked to verbalize such strong opinions, especially by linking them to their brand to suffer the potential consequences.
a. Nike Example
In his Brand Activism book, Du Toit (2016) takes Nike as the prime example on the issue of racial & cultural diversity on a brand level. Nike supports the latter directly through its mission statement that is of unequivocal inclusion. “If you have a body, you are an athlete”, Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman, once said these iconic words, and the company has stood by them in everything they’ve done, we can see it in their marketing, in their design, in the apps and devices they make.
“We are a company committed to diversity, inclusion and unleashing human potential . . . Nike believes if you have a body you are an athlete and we’re delighted it is becoming a call-to-action for all athletes to be their most authentic selves.”
b. The Bathroom Bill
As Du Toit (2016) reminds us, “Late February 2016, the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance expanding North Carolina’s anti-discrimination laws so that LGBT people would also be granted protection in places of “public accommodation” — part of this ordinance would allow transgender people to use the bathrooms of the gender they identify as.” However, the Republican Party backed by the state governor, blocked that ordinance by issuing a counter bill, House Bill 2, and having it voted the same day effectively banning people from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex, while also discouraging other cities from passing future anti-discrimination ordinances to protect transgender people. In response, 80 CEOs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Pfizer’s Charles Hill, and Google’s Sundar Pichai, co-signed a letter calling on the Governor to repeal these discriminatory provisions. They also reacted by pulling their support for the state and halting the opening of several of their new offices therein, effectively impeding the opening of thousands of new jobs that would have benefited the local economy, while stating that they do not wish to have their staff work in an environment where they are not all equal in the eyes of the law. Following this stance, numerous activities, including celebrities, decided to follow suit by either issuing public statements or even cancelling any activities (mainly concerts) they were planning on undertaking in those cities.
Both Nike’s mission statement, and the corporate reaction to the Bathroom Bill put forth inclusion efforts of multinational companies through the stated position of their top management acting as the mouth-piece of the company and what it stands for, be it by integrating it into their brand DNA & campaign (such as Nike), or by incorporating it into its trade & logistics management by taking an activist stance against a government issued effort to undermine a minority (opposition to bathroom bill).
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