Being ‘woke’ is on trend, so naturally, brand activism is happening. In 2019 wokeness was still linked to metropolitan whimsy. For those who are still asleep — being woke means being conscious of what’s happening around the globe.
Right now, there’s no brand out there who can afford to ignore this development. Companies are embracing ‘do-gooding’ en masse, and that doesn’t lead to flawless productions. The biggest condition when it comes to transforming successfully? Understanding how a brand can ride the popular activist mindset train.
Commercial success and activism can go hand in hand
True activist brands were developed out of activism and are completely catered to their goal. Patagonia is now well on its way to beating Apple as the model case for the average marketeer. The brand, and their authentic mission to protect the earth, shows that commercial success and activism go hand in hand, provided that there is a business model in which profit is not the ultimate goal, but a means.
From competition to collaboration
The transition is difficult for most brands, partly because commercial companies are set up to gain a competitive advantage: success at the expense of others. Activist goals — such as making chocolate slave-free for Tony’s Chocolonely — require cooperation in order to achieve success. The brand does not consider other chocolate brands as a threat, but as partners in their mission to have even more people buy slave-free chocolate. That isn’t something they’re just broadcasting, it’s something they are actively doing by making their open chain platform available to the Albert Heijn Delicata brand.
In addition, brands struggle to give up their heroic status. At a time when success was about financial gain, brands like Coca Cola, IKEA and H&M were the big winners. But now that success is about contributing in a positive way, that gigantic size and the associated negative impact on people and the environment suddenly makes these giants much less popular. That’s why they are trying to make a difference and attract attention with good initiatives such as H&M’s recycle programme. But the fact that they produce on such a large scale at such an extremely low price, immediately makes them implausible in their mission. Recycling to produce even more?
Focus on credibility
You can’t solve these issues by just launching a nice commercial. The challenge is reinventing yourself in an era where different laws apply. For example, criticism of activist campaigns such as Gillette’s much-discussed ‘The best a man can be campaign’ comes mainly from people within our own professional field. The criticism primarily focuses on credibility. And in the marketing world, whether something is credible is judged on the extent to which the story fits the brand.
But brands, like people, are not static. These are times of transformation, which means that change needs a transition period. Although we are aware of the damage we do by eating animals, flying, consuming and driving, we don’t stop doing those things all at once. Consumers understand very well that this is no different for companies. How much understanding brands can count on coincides with the following factors.
1. Add to the word
The most important and biggest challenge for brands is to align behaviour with their claims. For example, past Women’s Day Google launched a huge campaign about gender equality that puts strong women in the limelight. That while back in November, 20,000 Google employees took action against the company, because Google would protect senior executives suspected of sexually transgressing behaviour. Libresse claims to want to break through shame with their awe inspiring ‘no blood’ campaign, but still sells pantyliners for every day. A product that only exists by feeding shame.
2. Honesty and transparency
Transformation means learning and learning means making mistakes. Brands can also make mistakes, but honesty is a condition to remain credible.
Budweiser seems to have learned from the Gillette case that just taking on a different mentality out of nowhere may not be the best way to leave your past behind you. They choose to take the consumer into their transformation, by upgrading their most sexist ads to expressions that better fit today’s world. Vulnerable and funny, and therefore likeable. Now it’s definitely time to take a step back from those Budweiser Girls.
3. Don’t claim — facilitate
Nike understands that as an existing brand with a profit motive, you cannot be an activist, but can only facilitate activism. With the Kaepernick campaign, instead of writing their own story, Nike gave the story of someone without a voice an audience. Of course it was well directed and timed, but they didn’t fall into the trap of speaking out of turn, in the voice of the oppressed. This way you are not only credible and likeable, you are also less sensitive to criticism. For example, Nike seems to get away well with the rape claim that’s dangling above their sponsored hero Cristiano Ronaldo.
The popularity of contemporary activism can be seen in the enormous turnout at protest marches all over the world. During the climate march in the Netherlands 40,000 people walked along, all of them reasonably easy to place within a marketing group. So it won’t be long before brands walk along, if this isn’t happening already.
I personally would not advise anyone to walk along with a sign that includes a brand name. Before we know it, we’d see Pride scenes at the marches: Brands and government institutions that distract attention from the message that needs to be heard.
However, you can investigate how you can add value for the people who demonstrate. For example, bringing in hot chocolate from Tony’s Chocolonely or a Sonos box would have been quite welcome during the climate march.
Activism may be fun and everyone is allowed to participate, but the goal must remain clear: first and foremost, the world must benefit. Not you or your company.