Brand Activism is the New Black

As Manager of Content and Community Impact at the Purpose Collaborative, I’m delving into the role that activist brands play in today’s roiling political and social climate, drawing insights from members of the Collaborative.

Tread lightly into this Trump-instigated minefield…

Headlines like Trump’s Politics: Are Brands Playing with Fire? pepper our social media feeds, newsletters, and mainstream media, making it clear that we’ve surpassed the tipping point.

Through his campaign and nascent presidential term, Trump “has allowed a political and social environment to emerge that empowers agendas of hate and ignorance,” notes Scott Beaudoin, Chief Strategy Officer of RF Binder. For brands, having a voice has never been more important — or more daunting.

Approached smartly, brands can leverage this environment to better articulate what they stand and fight for, says Christine Arena of Generous Agency. Brands with a concisely communicated and executed purpose stand at an advantage. Still, they face the challenge of making their social purpose work harder and smarter to remain focused and impactful during turbulent times. As more brands hitch their name to a cause in an effort to impact society and their bottom line, they look to become activists operating on the leading edge of topical social issues.

While it’s refreshing to see companies veer from the “safe route,” there is a fine line between being risky and outspoken, versus compelling and impactful. The differentiator? Authenticity.

Let us frame this term: Authentic brands are honest and transparent. They understand that they must earn their license to operate and serve their constituents. By constantly utilizing their values, character, and organizational purpose as guiding principals, they are able to wade into the field of activism in a way that provides real solutions for society and community. Grabbing onto the “cause du jour” to have a share of voice tends to be a self-serving tactic rather than a genuine action to meet the needs of the society and community in which the company operates.

In the brave new world we know as the Trump presidency, brands are scrambling to understand when, why, and how they should speak up regarding a social issue — or if they should at all. Many are turning to their marketing, advertising, and communications experts for guidance. Activism’s “cool factor” is already manifesting itself through splashy new campaigns and punchy messaging.

Making a statement is no longer enough for skeptical consumers; action is the new mandate. State Street Global Advisors made their statement with the overnight installation of the “Fearless Girl,” a bronze statue positioned at eye level with Wall Street’s infamous charging bull. The message? The world needs more women leaders, and State Street encourages its peers to appoint more women to their boards. Noble in theory, the statement rings hollow given State Street’s male-dominated board.

Instances like these illustrate the importance of doing internal “housekeeping” before going public with bold or controversial statements. A company that speaks out about hiring women must be ready to demonstrate a shining track record of doing so.

Marketing brand activism is tricky — take Budweiser’s immigrant-focused Super Bowl commercial. While the message was true to the brand’s values and roots as an immigrant-founded American company, the spot did not relay any sense of impact of action on behalf of the brand.

To many, it was a tug-at-your-heartstrings, look-at-us spot that amplified the immigration debate. AdAge noted that while the ad “might be perceived by some viewers as making a subtle political statement, that was not the intent.” Still, Budweiser received its share of criticism. Many viewers lamented the lack of Budweiser’s lighthearted Clydesdale team; others voiced their opposition to the seemingly political spot with a #BoycottBudweiser campaign. NPR dove into the brand’s history, exploring immigration during the era of Adophus Busch, concluding that “while Budweiser’s ad represents a glowing representation of the American dream, the truth is more complicated, and in fact, reflects a history of immigration that reverberates today.”

The moral of the story? Brands need to consider not just their history, but the history of the issue they’re seeking to impact.

Brands: be strong and steadfast to your values. Soul-searching and conversations need to happen at all levels of a company before jumping into the role of an activist — because being an activist can turn away as many (or more) constituents as it brings to the table. It’s better for a brand to stay the course than hop into a charged societal conversation.

Case in point: Audi’s moving Super Bowl commercial. Splashed with sepia tones and narrated by a concerned father, a girl surpasses her male competitors to win a soap box race. Emotional and compelling, the spot ended with a message regarding Audi’s commitment to gender equality — which is well and good, except that Audi does not have a positive track record of advancing gender equality initiatives and policies within its ranks. The result was a flurry of critical press, and confused consumers — all in all, viewers found the play to be inauthentic and hollow.

Equally controversial was Starbucks’ pledge to hire 10,000 refugees globally in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban. The announcement came just a day after Trump’s executive order took effect, yet it was received warmly by consumers and press. Even critics understood the connection to the brand’s history of standing up for the underserved, and activist voice. Starbucks has always been the “third place,” opening its doors to all — immigrants included. In a message to employees, CEO Howard Schultz reiterated the brand’s stance: “Let me assure you that we will stay true to our values, taking actions that are squarely within our ability to control.”

In the same period, Nike launched its “Equality” campaign, a splashy statement of the brand’s commitment to supporting diversity and fairness through “the power of sport.” Serena Williams, LeBron James, Victor Cruz and other sports mega-stars helped announce the campaign through a moving prime-time commercial. Beyond the campaign’s feel-good veneer is a very real commitment to values Nike has championed for years, and continues to demonstrate through the announcement of partnerships with Mentor and PeacePlayer International, as well as a $5 million pledge to various U.S. organizations working to advance equality.

Being a Starbucks or a Nike rather than an Audi or a Budweiser requires a long-term vision for the impact you want your brand to have on the issue, and the impact you want the issue to have on your brand. What role will you play? Your consumers? Your employees? The communities you are serving?

The failures and successes of past commitments should help shape your brand’s activist ambition, as they will be the barometer for future success. Brands with a history of activism can use today’s climate to reiterate what they stand for as a company by living their values. Writing for The Drum, Andrew Eborn argues that this requires “shifting from having a brand purpose to acting on it. Don’t just mean it, do it.”

As more issues boil over in the coming months, brands may endure trials-by-fire as they add their voices and dollars to the mix. The successful brand activists will be those that make an impact in an authentic, value-centric, and human-to-human manner.

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