The age of brand activism?
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been a long standing practice for many brands and businesses. While good work has been achieved with genuine CSR, for the most part brands have avoided taking a direct political position and, as such, have perhaps lacked bite. 2017 is already set to change this with CSR being bolstered by a new interpretation of a brand’s role in society – brand activism.
A number of factors have contributed to this, predominantly the abrupt and immediate response from numerous major influential brands to the Trump Administration and its recent policy decisions, most notably the immigration ban on seven Muslim nations. This reaction relates to how those brands operate and, in particular, how it affects their staff. It has less to do with superficial PR and more to do with how it immediately impacts their business (and purportedly how it conflicts with their values). But there has also been a clear shift with consumers, who are increasingly responding positively to brands that take a stand on something meaningful—those who have a position, not just a positioning.
Of course, this isn’t an entirely new phenomena. There are instances where brands have sought to take a clear position on a certain issue and have consistently acted on it. Patagonia is a good case in point. Other brands, like Kenco with its Coffee vs Gangs program, have shown how action relates directly to their brand as a means to build deeper and more meaningful relations with their customers, while also espousing their brand values. But these actions haven’t been politically motivated.
However, the recent surge in brand activism points to a bigger shift—one that appears to be welcomed by consumers. From Patagonia shutting all its stores on November 8, 2016, to Starbucks promising to hire 10,000 refugees, through to Satya Nadella (Microsoft CEO) publicly stating “there is no place for bias or bigotry in any society” in a pointed response to Trump’s immigration ban. This is all consistent with growing public sentiment, which has been confirmed by increased protesting.
Clearly, brands are responding directly to policy by taking sides, being public about it and adopting specific measures to act on that position. And it seems to be working. In a taxi strike in New York protesting the immigration ban, many believed it was being undermined by Uber, resulting in #deleteuber trending on Twitter. In response, Uber competitor Lyft donated $1M to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) leading to Lyft downloads overtaking Uber for the first time. Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was also pressured to step down from Trump’s economic advisory council due to intense criticism and an online boycott of Uber.
In tandem, we are also seeing the rise of a new consumer activist movement spearheaded by Stop Funding Hate and a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants, among others. These groups engage brands to adopt what essentially amounts to brand activism. With brands using algorithms for their online advertising many businesses are unaware of where their ads are placed. Sleeping Giants alerts brands if their ads appear on fake news or racist sites, Brietbart in particular. Hundreds of brands were unaware of this fact and have since withdrawn their advertising. This activism goes to the heart of hate sites’ funding and seeks to destroy their business model. The lines are being drawn hard, and they are being defined by brands.
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical and suggest these are all marketing tactics. But in a post truth climate, customers are tired of spin. A Fast Company article predicting the major trends in branding for 2017 states: “Consumers are sick of bullshit. And brands will have to adjust… Brands will be stripped down to their essential parts, their narratives made simpler and more transparent. Honesty will reign. Successful branding will have fewer tricks and more truth.”
Brand activism means businesses risk losing customers by taking a clear political position. But they are betting on something bigger—galvanising a deeper relationship with current customers and perhaps appealing to new ones who are attracted by the values a brand delivers through it’s actions and behaviours. It’s too early to judge whether brand activism will become another marketing ploy for brands, or whether it will deepen their commitment on a political issue. Either way, with customers seeking more transparency, authenticity, meaning, truth—and a position on policy—this will likely become the new battleground for brand loyalty.