Why 2018 will be the year of branded activism

Nadine Ridder
Nov 10, 2017 · 4 min read
Photo by Nicole Adams on Unsplash

Hey, everyone, still getting used to the era of millennials, branded content and influencers? Wake up! It’s almost 2018 and there are some new kids in town.

Branded content arose from the demand for authentic stories within the millennial target audience. Because brands still find this transition difficult, branded content is often degraded to a commercial message wrapped in an editorial jacket. For real authentic stories we turn to branded journalism. This is editorial content, sponsored by brands. Branded content is created for clients and potential clients, branded journalism creates (new) audiences.

Now that the kids of GenZ (16–24) have dethroned the ever-influential millennials, it’s time for a new chapter in the content marketing book, marking a new generation: branded activism. This can best be described as independent activist or opinionated content carried by a brand. The term branded activism is also used when talked about purpose marketing. However, I see this as something else: purpose marketing is marketing streaming from the well-known ‘why’ of the brand. We see strong purpose marketing at Tony Chocolonely, for example: it’s their mission to make all chocolate in the world 100 % slave free. Their documentary Tony is a good example of branded journalism, an editorial story about ‘their’ theme.

Branded activism however, is the facilitation of opinion and discussion about different actual themes like diversity, the refugee crisis, environmental pollution and human rights. So, apart from having your own purpose (which is essential!), brands need to think about these topics and decide how to act on news and current affairs.

Why is this necessary? Purpose marketing arose because the conscious millennial expected the same kind of mentality from the brands they use and pick. GenZ goes one step further. They characterize themselves by their woke mentality. Woke? Yes, another term to familiarize yourself with! The term woke is so relevant now that it’s been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), translating as: ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.’ Being woke is often associated with an activist attitude: just being aware doesn’t change anything.

Where millennials demanded purpose from brands, GenZ is looking for companies that identify with their woke mentality. Where do we see this? The criticism facing Uber after their support of Trump shows that even a disruptive brand is mercilessly punished for making politically unpopular choices. Kendall Jenner was crying in keeping up with the kardashians about the backlash of the Pepsi commercial she starred in saying ‘you don’t know the outcome when you’re asked for a project.’ This response would have possibly saved her in the millennial era, but GenZ expects celebrities and influencers especially to be very conscious of the image they’re portraying. Collaboration equals approval.

A time in which brands must be careful and mistakes are easily made calls for a different approach. Safer to do nothing? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem — it’s a well-known saying. People and organizations who do not speak out against sexual violence in the #metoo discussion are called out for their lack of accountability. If you’re not woke as a brand, you’re not relevant.

We see this development in the media too: the distrust of traditional media is huge. How impartial is a news channel when it picks certain subjects and avoids others? Now that we know that our newsreaders give us a completely different world view than, for example, Al Jazeera does, this pretend objectivity isn’t worth a whole lot anymore.

This becomes apparent in the Netherlands by the success of media with a distinct opinion like GeenStijl and De Correspondent. Or Zondag met Lubach: a great success because Lubach’s team takes on such a clear point of view. No one claims to be telling the truth, because whoever is woke knows: there is not one truth.

How to embrace this development as a media brand or consumer brand? This quote from the extensive GenZ research by Protein hits the nail right on the head: ‘They’re demanding that brands create spaces, platforms and mediums that champion the oppressed, not exploit their struggle’. GenZ, the most diverse generation ever, doesn’t want to be talked about or talked with, they want to be the ones talking.

Pepsi borrowed imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement for a feel good coke campaign. Hema made the mistake of selling roti that wasn’t roti. DOVE forgot that using different skin tones in advertising needs to be handled with care. So, what should you do? Show that your brand knows that dialogue on these subjects is important, by facilitating the conversation. Even if you’re under fire, stop defending yourself and create space for new opinions to be able to learn.

And media brands? Entertaining media brands used to stay far, far away from news and opinion, partly because advertisers do not like to pick sides. But publishers begin to understand that by using more substance and going deeper into a story, they fit into the Zeitgeist more. The first brands are following. VICE launched the successful channel VICE News: news from the perception and experience of the target audience. Teen Vogue (Condé Nast) underwent a true transition, shifting from a focus on looks and celebrities to politics, feminism, identity and activism. On their website, the first category is now news and politics. Shortly, this publisher is launching THEM, an activist platform by the LGBTQ-community, sponsored by Burberry as one of their launching partners.

Nerve-wracking? Terrifying! But if you don’t facilitate the conversation yourself, it will happen elsewhere. You’re taking true risks if you don’t do anything, because this generation controls where they get their inspiration from. And if it’s not out there, they will create it themselves. With or without you.

translated by Imme Visser

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