Why Brand Activism Wins over Brand Neutrality

Why Brand Activism Wins over Brand Neutrality
13. November 2018 Falk Rehkopf

Why Brand Activism Wins over Brand Neutrality

In this day and age, consumers are all for authenticity and they’re increasingly putting their money behind brands who are willing to speak up for a cause. That said, communicating a political opinion has always been tricky and creates a hard-to-navigate situation for companies. For branding experts, competing primarily on the basis of product-centric positioning is likely to be much less effective in a world where large parts of the target demographics, such as millennials, look for brands who care for more than just profits. Yes, you’ll stand to win the admiration and loyalty of your customers – and employees increasingly looking for purpose, meaningful work and deep relationships – if you play your cards right. But go overboard and you might find yourself destroying your brand overnight. In this article, we take a deeper look at brand activism and talk about the pros and cons of brand activism and brand neutrality.

What is Brand Activism?

Brand activism, in a nutshell, refers to a situation wherein a company shares their opinion on social, economic, environmental or political issues – an opinion which is typically aligned with the company’s defined values. While some companies will simply go on the record and communicate their stance on a controversial issue, others might launch campaigns or initiatives in order to rally people around said issue. Is brand activism all for show? No one can say for sure – it might seem as though some companies engage in brand activism simply because it aligns with their mission and core values. But, on the other hand, it’s undeniable that brands DO get plenty of economic benefit out of brand activism (when done right). A recent case is Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick for the 30th anniversary of the company’s famous “Just Do It” campaign. The campaign caused in parts feverish debates among consumers and marketers, particularly on social platforms, but seems to overall pay off for the company. Consider this: Edelman has reported that 57% of 14,000 customers in 14 countries state that they are more likely to buy from, or boycott, a brand because of its stance on a social or political issue. Interestingly enough, we’ve also seen an exponential increase in corporate spending on cause-related campaigns in the past few years, with this spending hitting an all-time high of $2.05 billion in 2017. Marketing professor Philip Kotler and Christian Sarkar developed the below helpful brand activism framework:

Politics and branding: how values-based decisions affect brands

Brand activism can lead to consumers shaming or evangelising a brand. More practically, if consumers agree or disagree with a brand’s political stance, it can lead to boycott or a Buycott: the former is an act of refusal from using, buying or dealing with a product, brand or company as an expression of protest; a Buycott, on the other hand, refers to the act of showing support to a company or brand by intentionally buying their products. And consumers even have tools at their disposal: Buycott.com, for example, is an online platform and app which reads products’ Universal Product Code (UPC) barcodes and suggests whether a consumer should buy or avoid a product or service based on how well the offering aligns with the consumer’s values and principles. According to data from a joint study from Weber Shandwick and KRC, Buycotts are on the rise: 83% of consumer activists agree that it is more important than ever to show support for companies by buying from them instead of participating in boycotts (59%).  As mentioned previously, brand activism and values-based decisions can have a concrete impact on brands’ bottom lines. Take, for example, how social media turned on Uber during the 2017 taxi strike protesting Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Here’s what happened: following Trump’s immigration order, consumers were unhappy that Travis Kalanick, who was Uber’s CEO back then, didn’t speak out in any way. The world, at large, was expecting some sort of statement or action on Uber’s part because Uber has always positioned itself as a bold company who’s willing to call out any unfairness or injustice that it sees. Because of Uber’s decision to keep operating their services to New York’s JFK airport during the strike, consumers started a #DeleteUber campaign; this eventually resulted in over 200,000 people deleting the Uber app. On the other hand, consumers responded positively to Lyft, which opposed Trump’s order and even donated one million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Consumers started showing their support for Lyft by downloading their app after they had uninstalled Uber and Lyft beat Uber in App Store downloads for the first time on that day.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): morality as a PR & marketing tool

There isn’t any issue with using CSR, morality or brand activism as a PR and marketing tool, as long as your company does feel strongly about the cause it’s championing. Remember: consumers these days are highly discerning and if you’re supporting a cause simply to generate PR or buzz, they’ll be able to see that you’re trying to take advantage of the situation. Here’s an example: back in 2015, Starbucks ran a “Race Together” campaign that garnered a great deal of public backlash and mockery. The goal of the campaign was to spark discussion about race after the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men. In order to achieve this, Starbucks announced that their baristas would write #racetogether on cups and engage customers in a discussion on race relations when asked about it. Following this announcement, many consumers took to social media to rant about the campaign being “insincere” and “opportunistic”. After all, how could Starbucks expect their baristas to have a meaningful conversation about race while they were busy serving a line of waiting customers? More recently, in October 2018, ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s launched a new flavour called “Pecan Resist” and announced it would also donate a total of $100,000 to various causes as a form of peaceful resistance against Trump regressive policies – polarising many Twitter users.

Benefits of Taking a Political Stance

1. Showing your target audience you’re clued-in and informed

Having a political stance helps your company demonstrate credibility and shows consumers that you’re clued-in and informed. Take Brexit, for example. Once the news about Brexit first broke, consumers started looking to brands who did business in Europe to speak up and communicate their stance. Large conglomerates who chose to remain silent were heavily criticised and lost customer confidence.

2. Building rapport and loyalty

When you take a political stance, you’re making a statement about your values and this helps you build rapport and loyalty among customers who share said values. On top of that, engaging in brand activism can also bring about the positive side effect of having your consumers associate the act of buying from your company with supporting their own values. Don’t underestimate how powerful this association is – it gives your consumers an emotional reason to support your brand. This emotional tie goes far beyond product quality or price. Clothing brand Patagonia is an example: The company sells sustainable outdoor clothing but does not do a lot of advertising, aside from campaigns aimed at its climbing, skiing and surfing communities. Alex Weller, Patagonia’s European Marketing Director explained that marketing within Patagonia is focused on “building a movement” based on the values it shares with its communities – a connection that can’t be achieved through traditional advertising.

Risks of taking a political stance

So far, we’ve been discussing the positive impact of brand activism but there is a dark side of brand activism which surfaces when companies pursue regressive policies that hurt the common good. Needless to say, if you take a political stance and you are aligned with something that’s seen to hurt the common good, this doesn’t bode well for your company. For instance, Shell has been severely criticized for going against lifesaving climate policy globally and Koch Industries has also come under fire for trying to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in order to protect its fossil fuel profits. Both these companies’ names have been dragged through the mud and – next to Bayer, Beretta, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Nestle, Phillip Morris International and Shell – are now contenders for CorporateAccountability’s Corporate Hall of Shame 2018.

What about just staying neutral: the costs of brand neutrality

In a nutshell: brands who stubbornly remain neutral risk alienating their consumers and losing them for good. Here’s the thing: the average consumer today is more informed and purpose-driven than ever and they want to do business with companies who are committed to making the world a better place. The numbers don’t lie: a study by Haas School of Business at Berkeley, California shows that more than 90% of millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause. And 46% of consumers would be more likely to buy from a company led by a CEO who speaks out on an issue they agree with. Only 10 % would be less likely to buy. This rate has risen significantly since 2017 (46% vs. 38%). Demographics data on consumer activism have shown that Buycotters are younger than boycotters and that specifically in the UK there is a difference by household income where BUYcotters are significantly more likely to have higher household incomes than boycotters. If you’re not willing to stand up and be the change that your consumers want to see, then you’re going to lose out to the brands that are willing to lead the way – simple as that.

Examples of Brands Taking a Political Stance

A great example of a brand taking a (successful!) political stance is Dove, which launched a spoof campaign making fun of Trump’s #AlternativeFacts in 2017. The Dove campaign featured a series of fake claims on the ads that it ran on papers in the UK, including: “New Dove antiperspirant increases your IQ by 40 points”. The campaign promptly went viral and was picked up by prominent publications including Huffington Post, Metro and Refinery29. The common consensus was that the campaign was nicely done – it managed to criticise Trump’s campaign of disinformation without resorting to name-calling or shaming. That said, there are plenty of examples of brands whose attempt to take a political stance backfired on them as well. For instance, back in 2016, following the US election, the Vice President of New Balance spoke to the Wall Street Journal, saying that with President-elect Trump, he felt that things would “move in the right direction”. New Balance customers didn’t take too kindly to that statement: thousands of them flocked to retail stores to return their trainers and others started burning their trainers and posting videos on their social media channels.

Best Practices: how brands can navigate today’s charged political landscape

1. Understand your target market

Your business’s political stance will definitely be influenced by your brand values. That said, you should go beyond that and take your target audience into consideration as well. If your target audience stands for something completely different, then you might want to be less vocal in the short run and re-evaluate your product/market fit in the long run.

2. Look at your company’s track record

Before making a political stance, take a good, hard look at your company’s track record and think about whether your past actions and statements support or contradict your position. If it’s the latter, then take steps to change your policies and operations and only speak up when your actions are aligned with your opinions.

3. Identify potential risks

At the end of the day, getting political is always a risky move, so before embarking on a campaign or initiative that’s driven by brand activism, sit down and consider the potential negative impacts. Better yet, come up with a backup plan that you can implement if or when things go awry. For either form of consumer activism, get corporate communication vehicles ready, especially social tools, and use them appropriately. Also, identify potential influencers, including the CEO, from whom activists want to hear. Align talking points with the company or brand mission and values to ensure that your response is authentic.

The Future Outlook Of Brand Activism

We foresee that brand activism is becoming the rule and PR pros and marketers will start working more closely with political brand advisors in the near future. If your company hasn’t done so already, it’s crucial to reflect upon your values and identify the causes that you want to stand up for; after all, that’s the way to consumers’ hearts in 2019 and beyond. We couldn’t say it any better than Hanneke Faber (President Europe of Unilever and Member of the company’s Executive team) did in a recent post on Ariana Huffington’s health and wellness information startup, Thrive Global: “Building value through values can make the world a better place and help companies thrive”.

Chief Marketing Officer