Brand Activism: Is it time for your brand to become political?
For a long time, brands were advised to remain politically neutral. In recent years, this story has taken a turn. Where does this trend come from and do all brands now have to take a socio-political stance in order to still be relevant and seen?
A look back
First of all, the connection between politics and brands is nothing completely new.
In the last 20 years, however, this link has been established primarily by political institutions and actors who have made use of the brand concept, transferring techniques from the world of marketing to the world of politics. The opposite direction, i.e. the transfer of the political component into commercial brands, on the other hand, is a phenomenon that has only been observed in recent years, especially in the USA.
The economist and professor of marketing Philip Kotler and activist and marketing researcher Christian Sarkar refer to the phenomenon as “brand activism” and describe the development as following:
“A logical consequence of social changes as well as past events that show that a purely economic view of companies does not do justice to reality.”
So where does brand activism come from exactly?
First of all, the environment of brands has changed significantly in recent years and has become more uncertain and unpredictable. Recent events such as Donald Trump’s presidency, the rise of right-wing populist parties, the Fridays for Future movement, or the global Corona Crisis have changed the world. This reflects the worldwide study “Brands in the midst of crisis,” in which the majority of consumers stated that they currently trust companies more than politicians. In fact, 55% of global respondents said that brands are currently more likely to help solve social problems than the government.
Secondly, brands today find themselves in an environment of hard-to-reach target groups and enormous competitive pressure. Havas Group’s 2019 Meaningful Brands study states that 77 percent of brands could disappear overnight and no one would notice. As a result, brands are increasingly trying to stand out and offer their customers clear added value. Brand Activism can help differentiate from the competition and play a crucial role in the battle for attention. What’s important here is that brand activism should not just be seen as a communication USP, but be deeply embedded into the brand and its products. (But more on that later.)
In addition, numerous studies suggest that changing consumer expectations are at the center of the brand activism development. The majority of consumers (first and foremost the Millennials and Gen-Z) currently consider it important for brands to take a public stance on social and political issues.
“Simply put, young consumers in particular are increasingly attaching value on the ethical component of a brand. They demand orientation, and want brands to take a clear stand.”
And there’s another new aspect that must be considered: The newly gained consumer power and willingness of people to put pressure on brands forcing them to speak out. Social media has given consumers a powerful tool to spread information about a company’s misconduct at breakneck speed, increasing the pressure on companies and brands to justify themselves and position themselves publicly.
As a result, brand activism is turning from an active choice to a necessity as people put pressure on brands to engage more. Brand managers are increasingly confronted with the need to take a stand within a very short time and publicly speak out on socio-political issues.
So, what now?
What advice can we give to brand managers in these heated times?
Do all brands have to speak out about important topics like gender pay gaps and diversity in order to stay relevant and heard in today's society?
“The truth is, that from a marketing perspective, taking a clear socio-political position can certainly bring many benefits, but at the same time at least as many risks.”
What can be recommended to every brand at this point is to prepare internally. After all, there are plenty of examples where brands have not taken a proactive political stance, but have been obliged to do so by external pressure. Therefore, we recommend every brand think about where they stand on certain socio-political issues and how to justify their stance in relation to their own brand history and values.
However, when it comes to proactive positioning, we need to dig a little deeper.
The &why Brand Activism Framework
To ensure that a brand’s socio-political activities fit the identity and will have a positive impact on the brand, we created a framework to consider when becoming sociopolitically active. So here we go:
- Brand Analysis
- Stakeholder Analysis
- Long-term commitment
1. Brand Analysis
What’s your brand history? What are your core values? What’s your company culture? What’s your vision and mission? What’s your company’s right to exist?
Your attitude needs to fit your brand's identity. The first thing we review with our clients when they are considering to be more active on socio-political topics is the identity of their brand.
While brand activism might seem obvious for brands whose purpose of existence (e.g. outdoor clothing company Patagonia) is already based on a concern to improve the world, speaking out on socio-political issues can also be taken into account for brands whose existence does not primarily serve a positive contribution to the common good, as long as the attitude fits the brand identity (e.g. Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick).
If at this point you discover that your employees or customers can’t identify with your brand’s vision, mission, and values, you may want to consider repositioning your brand. And indeed, a more socio-political orientation of your company can improve the chance of a brand’s reputation, strengthen customer loyalty or help reach new target groups.”
&why works with both established or start-up companies, to develop or build identities that do good.
2. Stakeholder Analysis
Who are my stakeholders? What do they need? What do they look for in brands? What is their political orientation? What added value do we offer them? Does my brand fit my target group?
Be sure to take a close look at your target group. Before taking a stance, we highly recommend taking a closer look at your brand’s target group. What’s important is that this is not the time to force a match. This stage is about deeply understanding who you’re talking to but also who not.
If, for example, Gen-Z (10–23 years old) or the Millennials (24–38 years old) represent the brand’s core target group, a socio-political commitment can be recommended in most cases (if it fits the brand identity of course). In addition to age, factors such as political orientation or ethnic origin of the target group should also be taken into account.
“And let’s be frank — Brand Activism will affect most consumer brands in the future.”
Gen-Z (11.32 %) and the Millennials (15.73 %) already make up a non-negligible proportion of the population in Germany. If they are not your customers now, think about if they will be in 5 years.
Which attitude matches the brand identity? Why is the attitude relevant to my stakeholders? Do they share the opinion? How do I create a non-monetary reference to my product/service?
Find a coherent and relevant attitude. After taking a closer look at your brand and target group, a coherent attitude can be identified. This means checking with your employees, your leadership team, the industry your in, and, obviously, your target groups from section 2.
Instead of reacting to trending topics, you should take the time to proactively ask stakeholders which issues are most important to them. Then, identify where your brand’s identity and the topics important to your target group intersect. Don’t force an intersection.
What are my critical points within my company in divergence to my attitude? What does the team actually think of all this? Is the capacity for development available internally or should we reach out to external experts?
Live the attitude intrinsically throughout the whole company and enforce it holistically. Before you take action or communicate, bring your employees into the conversation. To create an authentic stand that resonates with your target audience, be open to hearing and implementing diverse perspectives from your own employees.
In addition, it is crucial to learn as much as possible about the topic on which the position is being taken. To better educate your audience on the topic, you should consider partnering with nonprofits, activists, or other third-party experts devoted to the topic. Working with outside experts will also boost your credibility when taking a stance.
Furthermore, internal disagreements, i.e. issues where there is a divergence between attitude and action, should be identified and resolution strategies developed. Such measures help to prepare for hostility and to reject allegations of so-called “greenwashing” or “purpose washing”.
What’s important about this section is: This may well be the most challenging part of the framework, but it’s also where our impact goes from brand to company. Coming clean and creating consent while committing to continuous improvement, is where you go the extra mile to change your brand and company for the better.
Which activities fit the brand and can be realized? What impact will our actions have? Which NGOs, activists, or projects could we join?
Your attitude should be reflected in the actions taken. What can often be observed lately are brands that rush to follow a trend and use a social or political statement as a pure marketing tool.
Without translating the attitude preached into practical action (before communication), they quickly run the risk of being perceived as untrustworthy and hypocritical. And apart from these brand focused risks, it’s just not right to use an important cause without actively and positively contributing toward the issue.
What story is of interest to my target group? How can I create a non-monetary link to my core business? Which tonality matches my brand, target group, and cause? Which touchpoints should be taken into account?
Do good and then talk about it. While it’s vital that your attitude matches your brand identity and intended target group and is accompanied by coherent activities, we also want our cause to be heard and attract attention in the first place, right?
But here, too, there are a few things to keep in mind. After all, we don’t want our message to miss the target group, be irrelevant, or the worst case, to be misunderstood. Therefore it is important to communicate in the right tonality and send honest and relevant messages. Consumers have become more vigilant and are quick to expose miscommunication. We are happy to help you make sure you hit the right tone ;).
There will always be aspects of your company that can be seen negatively or where you are still required to improve things (which should have been determined in the previous step). We advise you to communicate these weak points honestly, be transparent with strategies on how you approach them, and to deal openly with criticism.
In times of a polarized society, the attitude of a brand leads to approval by one faction and rejection by the other. Now, that’s no reason to be quiet and pull your head in. Honestly, who wants to be everybody's darling?
“Quite the contrary, so-called brand polarization can promote identification with the brand, increase self-confidence and convey an enhanced sense of self-worth.”
Furthermore, a polarizing brand can also provide guidance for brand management. Thus, a clearly defined group of “brand lovers” and “brand rejecters” can strengthen the brand positioning and help the development of a communication strategy.
7. Long-term commitment
A consistent, long-term, and well-founded attitude is crucial in order to be perceived as credible.
Last but not least, Brand Activism (in our opinion) should never be seen as a short-term marketing activity but rather be considered for the long-term. Only then will it be possible to gain the necessary trust of the target group and build strong brand loyalty.
As a bottom line: is brand activism inevitable?
These factors taken into account, brand activism can be a way to target consumer needs and prevent consumer activism activities against one’s own brand.
It can offer your customers a surface for identification, give orientation, and can help to reach new customer groups or appeal to new potential employees. However, it is essential not to reduce the socio-political stance to the area of brand communication alone.
Drop us a line!
Also, as noted previously none of these steps is universally applicable to every industry and situation. What is universally applicable is that brand activism requires deep and authentic commitment. And if that’s what you’re into as well, drop us a line and we can work on the future of your brand together.
Written by Daniela Baumann, Brand Strategist at &why.