Social Good Blog Post

Does Brand Activism Work for Business?

Clenched fist raised in the air

It appears that nowadays brands are expected to stand for more than just their products. People care deeply about social issues and they want the companies they buy from to care too.

This does not mean to say, however, that every instance of brand activism is good, or even necessary. Consumers are unimpressed with shallow, baseless attempts at social justice campaigns for the sake of publicity.

Taking a stand 

Many companies have the balance right. In the last decade, we’ve seen a rise in the number of big-name brands publicly taking a stand and aligning their marketing campaigns with social issues.

According to a 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report, nearly two-thirds of consumers are now considered ‘belief driven buyers’ who will either buy from or boycott a brand based on its stance on social issues.

YouGov research has also shown that 54% of UK consumers now expect brands to take a stand on these matters, claiming that they have a ‘responsibility’ to society.

In today’s social climate of Trump, Brexit, and fake news, it seems that politics pervades every aspect of our lives and this even extends to the way we spend our money.

When brand activism goes wrong

The key to success lies in authenticity. Consumers have grown wise to marketing tactics and can see through PR stunts dressed up as social justice movements.

Take Starbucks ‘Race Together’ campaign in 2015 which aimed to instigate a national conversation on race in the US by having baristas write the phrase on coffee cups and enter into discussion on the topic with customers when asked. The campaign was inspired by racial protests that followed the grand jury decision not to indict a white police officer, who shot and killed a young black teenager.

The backlash was instant and unanimous as consumers perceived the campaign to be opportunistic, insensitive, and thought it ridiculous to expect baristas serving a queue of waiting customers to have the time, or the training, to enter into a nuanced discussion on race.

Staying authentic to your core mission

However, consumers are generally more receptive to social good campaigns that they perceive to be genuine. Companies such as TOMs and Patagonia continue to fight for social causes with minimal criticism because this kind of activism has been a central part of these companies’ messaging since their inception, Patagonia literally label themselves ‘The Activist Company’.

Even when these types of companies do face backlash, it is not necessarily detrimental to their reputation or sales numbers.

Lush were heavily criticised for their 2018 #spycops campaign which aimed to highlight ‘the ongoing undercover policing scandal, where officers have infiltrated the lives, homes and beds of activists’.

People believed that a company selling bath bombs had no right to speak on this topic and the campaign was viewed by many as poorly thought out and anti-police. However, despite the hundreds of unhappy people calling out #flushlush, statistics show that the company’s sales actually went up by 14% during the period of the campaign.

Looking at the people who follow Lush on twitter compared to those who were using the flush lush hashtag, Brandwatch Analytics found marked differences which seemed to explain this unusual statistic. Essentially, those who were threatening to boycott the brand generally didn’t shop there in the first place, and if anything, the scandal only provided extra publicity towards their regular customers who already believed in the brand’s activist message and supported the campaign.

Lush got away with what could be perceived as a marketing slip-up because, although it wasn’t generally well-received, it was authentic to their core mission to campaign for social good.

The only way brand activism can have a positive impact is if it relates to an issue that the company, and their staff, believe in and want to have an impact on, rather than simply to increase sales.

Playing the long game

Taking a political stance in marketing is not a new idea. It has proved to be a very profitable move for brands in the past.

In 2004 Dove launched its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which utilised the statistic that only 2% of the women they interviewed considered themselves beautiful, to start a conversation about beauty standards. The campaign featured ‘real women’ rather than conventional models and aimed to empower women to feel good about their own bodies.

Still going over a decade later, the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign saw a 700% increase in sales in the first six months and increased Dove’s share in the market from 1% to 6%.

However, the campaign has also received its fair share of criticism. People questioned the authenticity of Dove promoting ‘real beauty’ while owned by a corporation (Unilever that owned companies like Slimfast, selling diet products, and Axe, who are perceived to play into sexist ideology in their marketing campaigns.

Choosing the right campaign for your brand 

It’s not easy to find examples of social good marketing strategies that have not received criticism on some level.

Companies engaging in brand activism will inevitably risk alienating some customers. But they generally do gain customer loyalty, aligning themselves with buyer values and enjoying increased media exposure.

Successful brand activism is that which tackles issues related to the company’s values and through which they can make a genuine impact.

A good example is Airbnb’s Open Homes platform. It connects refugees and people displaced from their homes by disasters with hosts who can house them temporarily at no cost.

Activist marketing campaigns that fare worse are those which appear to represent an abrupt change in direction for the company or those perceived to be empty messaging for the sake of publicity.

Campaigns such as Gilette’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be’, a rebranding of their slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’, sparked controversy because it was seen as a swift reversal of their traditional marketing, which generally relied heavily on gender stereotypes, in an attempt to better align themselves with modern attitudes.

On the other hand, inaction can be equally harmful to a brand’s reputation. Uber’s decision to keep operating from JFK airport during taxi strikes protesting Trumps immigration ban led to swift and brutal condemnation of the company across Twitter and, for the first time, rival company Lyft overtook Uber’s downloads on the app store.

Show that your organisation really cares 

Brands looking to branch out into this area of marketing should be careful to choose a cause that aligns with their core values and is relevant to their business. They must put their money where their mouth is and take action to ensure that their campaigns are authentic and effective.

Most importantly, they must be doing it for the right reasons; the only way brand activism can have a positive impact is if it relates to an issue that the company, and their staff, believe in and want to have an impact on, rather than simply increase sales.

If you would like to know more about how a brand can do social good, please feel free to get in touch!




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