Taking a Stand: Four Steps to Creating and Marketing Authentic Brand Activism

October 20, 2020

It’s time for brands to step up to social activism — or step aside.

That’s the message from Mitch Hamilton, an associate marketing professor at Loyola Marymount University who believes companies can no longer afford to sit passively on the sidelines while socio-political movements rage across the world. Consumers are increasingly using their purchasing power to express their feelings in the fight over racial justice, gender equality, sustainability and the widening wealth gap, and companies must heed what is a clarion call to get involved.

“Brand activism, to me, is beyond just exterior support,” he said. “True brand activism is companies that are actually in the trenches, actively trying to create change.”

Hamilton is co-hosting “(In)authentic Brand Activism,” an upcoming MSI webinar that will explore why so many brands are struggling with their responses to what is happening in the headlines, from the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements to other causes that consumers truly care about.

The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two Black people who were killed by police earlier this year, sparked a summer of social justice protests worldwide that prompted many companies to rethink their mission statements and iconic logos. Some scrambled to issue proclamations about diversity and inclusion, posting messages on their homepages and inside stores, and sending emails to customers. But some of those messages fell flat for customers who were unconvinced there was any meaning behind the words.

“When Black Lives Matter became an issue, what many companies were trying to do … it was hilarious,” said Hamilton. In contrast, he praised Ben & Jerry’s response as an example of authentic commitment. “They’re very much taking a real stance and not beating around the bush. It’s a systemic issue, so we need to see systemic change. You can tell us anything you want. We’ve been hearing that from organizations and institutions for a long time, and it doesn’t mean anything without action.” 

Hamilton’s views are echoed by two other scholars who agree that now is the time for brands to take a stand. Daniel Korschun, associate professor of marketing at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, and Katherine White, professor in the marketing and behavioral sciences division at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, both point to research that shows consumers want to do business with companies that reflect their own values. 

“It is true that there is a risk because some customers might feel alienated. However, the positive [aspect] is that this will connect the brand more strongly with the core target market,” White said. She pointed to Nike’s ads with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was ousted from the NFL for taking a knee during the national anthem in protest against racial injustice. Some consumers had negative reactions to the ad campaign, but the company reported a subsequent boom in sales

Korschun acknowledged that companies are under tremendous pressure, and it can feel like they’re “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” in responding to social issues.

“In the future almost all companies will be forced to make some kind of political statement so it’s a matter of choosing what you want to be vocal about and how you want to go about doing it,” he said. “I think the best companies are the ones that have support at the top, but they are listening to all their stakeholders and the voices coming up and trying to be transparent.”

Brand Activism vs. Corporate Social Responsibility 

The current focus on brand activism is different from the traditional banner of corporate social responsibility in several important ways, the scholars said. CSR is easier because companies can choose to bolster causes that most everyone agrees with: helping the poor, supporting cancer research, improving child literacy, etc. But brand activism puts a stake in the ground on causes that are more polarizing, especially in today’s testy political landscape.

“In the academic literature, it’s not 100% established that there’s more polarization. But I think everyone can agree there’s more antagonism on the political spectrum,” Korschun said. “The middle seems to be disappearing. What does that mean for companies? If you’re purely reacting, that’s not enough.” 

The professors also said the younger generation of shoppers is driving the trend. White cited recent surveys that show brand activism matters to 80% of millennials and 75% of Generation Z. These cohorts want to know everything about a company, and they do their research online before committing to a purchase.

Rather than corporate social responsibility, Hamilton prefers the term “triple-bottom-line marketing,” which he describes as profit, people and planet. “When my parents used to buy products, all they knew was the name of the company, how much it cost and whether it worked for them,” he said. “Now, consumers have so much access to companies and brands and how they operate. They expect full transparency, and because of that, more and more companies are transitioning to this triple-bottom-line approach.”

In his research, Korschun said he has been surprised to discover the degree to which company transparency is important to consumers. They are paying close attention and take notice when companies appear to contradict themselves. He said Chick-fil-A, for example, has maintained a loyal customer base because it has been consistent on its conservative position. Patagonia, which has long supported environmental causes, is another example. The outdoor clothing retailer even joined a coalition of Native American tribes suing President Donald Trump over rollbacks on parkland protection.

“When a company says they believe one thing and actually supports something else, or pretends to be neutral and they are not neutral, these things are unnerving to the consumer,” Korschun said. “When a company withholds information to the consumer and the consumer finds out, they question the whole relationship.”

How to Take Action

Today’s consumers demand reassurance that brand activism is at the root of a company’s mission and not just reflexive to the news ticker or what’s trending on social media. The professors offered four steps marketers can take to ensure their companies are getting it right:

  1. Be Prepared – No company is safe from being pulled into the political fray, sometimes when they least expect it. In 2016, Skittles found itself responding to a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., who used an image of the colorful candy to make a policy argument against admitting Syrian refugees. “The lesson there is you never know what political issues are going to crop up, so it’s important to keep your eyes open to the broader political landscape,” Korschun said.
  2. Be Authentic – Make your brand values clear, and then be congruent and consistent with those values. Companies that are authentic from the start will face less scrutiny when they make a move. Korschun and Hamilton called out the NFL as an example, saying the league’s past ambiguity on racial justice makes it harder for fans to accept its recent turnaround. White shared an example of Canadian brand Righteous Gelato, which tried to promote a Black Lives Matter flavor of ice cream. “It felt inauthentic, contrived and not clearly linked to the brand’s identity. As a result, there was immediate consumer backlash,” she said.
  3. Collaborate — Brand activism is most effective when everyone joins in the conversation, including customers, communities, shareholders and employees. White urged companies to listen to everyone at the table before making decisions in a vacuum. “Then you can identify a sweet spot where your brand’s values and the topics your stakeholders want to talk about intersect,” she said.
  4. Build Credibility – Getting customers to believe in your authenticity takes time, especially if you’re new to brand activism. Following the first three steps will get you there, but be consistent, committed and patient. “Marketing is all about relationships. What it takes to build relationships in that space is what it takes to build a great interpersonal relationship, like a friend,” Hamilton said. “It takes time.”

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