The rise of brand activism and backlash marketing.

Gareth Fox
6 min readMar 15, 2017

Should brands get involved in politics? Or should they ‘Shut up and stick to what they know’

When I say ‘get involved in’, I’m not talking about doing a quick whip-round for Greenpeace or sponsoring some good-cause environmental charity; that in my opinion is just green washing. I’m talking about getting into a Twitter war with @realdonaldtrump, for example.

Even in 2016 this would have been tantamount to brand suicide. Brands didn’t get involved with politics, full stop. However, slowly some in the public are looking to and in some cases demanding that brands voice their opinion and stand up for certain issues — especially as at times the brands opinion and money is the only voice politicians will heed. Already my favourite marketing expression of the year is ‘backlash marketing’ to describe this new wave of brand activism.

Brands have over the years been slowly dipping their toe into politics, or at least championing causes. Dove’s ‘real beauty ’ campaign in 2007 stood up to a body- obsessed media, fashion and even the advertising industry and challenged the perception of what really beauty was and is. Although not overtly political, it was a risk for Dove (and the parent company Unilever). The idea that a beauty product and Unilever should campaign on an essentially feminist cause did seem hypocritical in the least to a few observers. Never the less, Dove stuck with it and the campaign is still running, evolving and championing ‘really beauty’ with its latest campaigns and ads.

Ogilvy & Mather’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign for Dove

In 2015 Burger King (and the agency DAVID) introduced the ‘Proud Whopper’, a rainbow wrapped burger in San Francisco to support Gay Pride week and LGBT causes. This was a risky move for Burger King as the issue was and still is a divisive topic not just in the US. Rightly so Burger King won plaudits (and a few Cannes awards) for their stance and support, Fernando Machado, (senior vice president of global brand management at Burger King), stated “It shows how we, as a brand, believe in self-expression.”

The Proud Whopper is a regular flame-grilled Whopper, wrapped in rainbow paper inscribed with the message, “We are all the same inside.”

Brands must now become more political.

Fast-forward to 2017 and what’s interesting to note is how some of the world’s most powerful brands and CEOs are now reacting. The question now is, can a brand now NOT afford to take a stance on political issues? Philippe von Borries, founder of Refinery 29 (a media company championing and celebrating women’s rights) noted that “91% of all millennial will swap a brand to one with a cause”. Refinery 29 was itself active in the recent Women march against Trump, allowing their audience to download and print specially made banners and posters (from their websites and social channels) for the march. Many other brands also showed their solidarity by tweeting under #WhyWeMarch.

Refinery 29 #WhyWeMarch Posters

This year also saw a sea change in brands overtly speaking up against politicians, most notably Donald Trump and his immigration policy (or to put it bluntly the Muslim ban). In what was an unprecedented move, over 100 US companies including, Apple, Facebook, Google, et al., stepped into the legal fight against Trump’s travel ban. Mark Parker, Nike Chief Executive, also implored his employees to stand up for the brand’s values of celebrating diversity in an internal, and now widely shared, email.

“Nike believes in a world where everyone celebrates the power of diversity, regardless of whether or how you worship, where you come from or who you love, everyone’s individual experience is what makes us stronger as a whole.”

The Budweiser Superbowl ad was another, all be it subtle, nod to the benefits of immigration. The ad depicts its founder’s journey from Germany to the US and the overt hostility that he, as a foreigner, received. The advert itself divided America’s already divisive audience. Some applauded Budweiser’s stance whilst others criticized it for being overtly political (Superbowls and politics don’t mix) and alienating some of its core target audience, the American Midwest.

As Trump continues with his make-it-up-as-you-go, bull-in-a-china-shop political policies, consumers are just waking up to the notion that they can now hold brands accountable for their political views or lack of action against Trump’s “very very bad” policies.

As with the Nike example, when a brand does speak up for a cause it does increase awareness and engagement. Mark Parker’s email was widely circulated amongst social channels leading to a spike in awareness for Nike with a host of positive media mentions and press coverage.

Backlash marketing, brands must be sincere.

Brands, however, must be believable, sincere and not be seen as just jumping on the bandwagon, or risk a backlash themselves. This was felt by Uber (an almost ever-present in the headlines at the moment) when they spoke up against Trump’s ‘travel ban’. Many saw this as double standards given Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick’s membership of Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. This coupled with Uber decision to ‘switch off’ surge pricing (which results in higher fares at busy times) during a protest at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport against the ‘travel ban’, lead to #DeleteUber to trend worldwide, encouraging others not only to delete the app from their phones, but also to cancel their Uber accounts.

Uber screenshot image from @katebergie #DeleteUber

Not only did Uber suffer reputational damage, many also recommended people switch to Lyft (a direct competitor of Uber in the US market). Lyft also cleverly announced on it’s blog: “We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution”. Smart move.

Will brand politics become the new norm?

Is this all a marketing ploy? Personally I hope not and don’t think it is. The response from many brands seems to be genuine, and personally I feel a closer attachment to a brand that doesn’t just provide me with a service, per say, but also shares and upholds the same common values and, in doing so, has been able to forge meaningful relationships with me and other consumers.

If brands do speak up, then it must be believable, honest and sincere. The backlash will be hard on any brand seeming to cash in on any cause. Social media allows brands to directly communicate their political position with their consumers and also get involved on an almost eye-to-eye level, at times revealing there is a conscience behind the often faceless corporation.

If nothing more, seeing the big brands take a stance on political issues has given others and the public the confidence to speak out.

Gareth Fox is a multi-discipled designer & brand strategist at IM MAI Berlin. Follow him on twitter G23Fox or Instagram foxinberlin

Other stuff I’ve written.

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Gareth Fox

Dad, Creative Director, designer & sometimes brand strategist. Passionate about tech, design sprints and football ⚽ www.garethfox.com 🖥