Brand activism: two birds with one stone, right?
An increasing number of brands are becoming activist. That is, they express themselves on controversial social issues. Or even become active themselves. Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and the like – there are now plenty of examples. This is important for society. But what about from an economic perspective? Is brand activism worthwhile? Or are companies taking too high, incalculable a risk?
Societal issues are coming to the fore: wars, limited resources, climate change, and the fight against inequality. Workers:inside and consumers:inside want companies to take a stand. Trend research expert Mirjam Hauser sums it up: “The competition of values is becoming more important than the competition of prices. Especially among Generation Z. Activism is one way companies are looking to satisfy this drive for values.
Brand activism and CSR – the same thing?
It is important to understand that brand activism and CSR are not the same thing. CSR has long been considered a “must-have.” Just about every company wants to portray itself as sustainable. A classic example of CSR is the commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. By doing so, companies want to show that they are giving something back to society. This is undoubtedly positive. But since it has become more of a standard than a unique selling proposition, it achieves less effect from a marketing perspective. What is different about brand activism?
Brand activism goes further. It’s not enough to participate in a social movement. Brands need to drive steps independently and actively. In addition, brand activism tends to deal with controversial issues. So speaking out against climate change or wearing a captain’s armband in rainbow colors is by no means one of them.
An exciting example is Ben & Jerry’s: in 2018, the company released a packaging design with the inscription “RESIST” as a protest against Donald Trump’s policies. Additionally, they are calling for protests against him on their channels. It’s an active move by the brand on a controversial issue – one that divides the U.S. like no other. Another practical example is Patagonia: already in 2011, they spoke out firmly against fast fashion and “advertised” their jacket with the slogan “don’t buy this jacket”.
What brand activism does for businesses
First, let’s say that we don’t want to imply that companies act only for economic motives. The positive effects for a society are obvious. However, it cannot be denied that the economic aspect plays a major role. With which echo a company can count therefore?
As mentioned above, it is consumer:inside increasingly important that brands embody values. Suitable mark activism makes these values experiencable. Provided that the consumers share these values, this strengthens the customer relationship and loyalty. This leads to consumers associating the products with their own values. This creates an emotional connection that goes far beyond quality and price and is much stronger. The result: sales. The best-practice example here is once again Patagonia. They don’t invest much in big advertising campaigns, but focus on communicating their own values. With success. Incidentally, the same effects also apply to employees. Research suggests that they would be more likely to accept a lower salary as long as the company’s values fit them.
But the truth is also that companies take a risk that is difficult to calculate. Brand activism is pushing those who are of a different opinion over the head. Thus brands make themselves vulnerable. These customers are in danger of being lost forever. In the worst case, boycotts or shitstorms can follow. Backpedaling in the wake of negative reactions makes things even worse. Not only do you lose credibility, but you also lose those who were originally of the same opinion.
How to do it right
Authenticity is the keyword: Brand activism is good when the brand is perceived as contributing to the cause. Not when everyone recognizes that it is a marketing move. The opinion expressed must fit consistently with the corporate image. It must not contradict past corporate activities. If a brand’s efforts are perceived as inauthentic, the shot will backfire mightily – even if the topic is important.
Whether brand activism is really worthwhile from an economic perspective cannot be answered unequivocally. There are many examples where companies have received very positive feedback. Likewise, there are examples in the other direction. However, it is not possible to draw any direct conclusions about sales or profits. It is hardly possible to isolate the effect on key economic figures. So it’s hard to make a general recommendation.
With all the consideration of the economic perspective, which is often the decisive criterion for us as an agency, we must not forget: our society wants brands that take on more responsibility! And that contributes to the sharpening of the profile in the long term.