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What’s ‘Brand Activism’, Then?

a hand of a person holding up ‘white immigrants make America great again’ sign in a large crowd with trees in the background

To talk about brand activism is to talk about brand trust, in essence. Brand activism is something that has arisen from recent, shocking statistics like this from Edelman’s Earned Brand report (2017) – 57% of customers are more likely to buy from, or boycott, a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue. This was based on a survey of 14,000 people across 14 separate countries.

This finding comes at a time when trust in brands is at what must be an all time low. Edelman’s Trust Barometer report (2017) for last year was damning, revealing that only 37% of the general UK population trust institutions, a statistic that sits 8% lower than the global average. Further, they found that 53% of people do not regularly listen to people or organisations with whom they often disagree.

The landscape for brands is one with “a public hungry for increased regulation for business”, a public “largely supportive of a number of anti-business practices”. The public understandably find it hard to believe that a “company [is incapable of taking] actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates”. Edelman add that “in a climate in which the system is perceived to be failing, the expectations of business are far greater”. It is with this that we arrive at brand activism.

As Interbrand wrote (2017), every brand has something that they could stand for. Holding onto customer trust is something that demands for businesses to stand up for what’s right. The cause that they choose to back is up to them, however.

Brand activism done well from Howies. Take that, National Trust.

Kotler and Sarkar broke brand activism down into six distinct categories in their Marketing Journal piece “Finally, Brand Activism!” (2017). For them, activism that brands choose to engage in can be social, legal, business-related, economic, political or environmental. Social activism covers areas such as inequality or other societal issues. Legal activism, as the name suggests, deals with laws and policies that may or may not impact the company in question directly. Business activism takes issue with corporate organisation, CEO pay, worker compensation, union regulations and so on.

Halfway there… Take a deep breath…

Economic activism is concerned with policies that impact income inequality and the redistribution of wealth, political activism is exactly what you would expect, as is environmental activism. The problem is figuring out which is the most appropriate for your brand. While some forms of activism seem like a logical fit for certain kinds of brands – outdoor brands naturally gravitate towards environmental activism, for instance – a traditional high street stationery brand might struggle to pull off social activism without it looking like bandwagon jumping, however.

The activist avenue you choose to pursue with your brand can only come from a serious, reasoned examination of your values, philosophies and company message, to see which would be the best fit for your brand. If the issues that you feel most passionate about don’t align with your brand, but you still feel you can make a meaningful impact on the discussion being had in that sector – by all means do, but tread lightly (see the now-banned and astoundingly misjudged Pepsi campaign above for a case study of what happens when brands ignore this advice).

Long story short, with trust in brands being at an all time low – shown with the various Edelman statistics mentioned earlier – brand activism is something that all brands should be considering, seeing where they could make a meaningful impact, and doing so without raising any eyebrows or questions about your intentions.