2018: The Year of Business Activism

Announced at the end of 2017, Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” ushered in a wave of impactful CSR and business activism initiatives in 2018. Credit: Patagonia.

As 2018 wraps up, you’re not alone if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. This year has gifted us its fair share of scandals, inflammatory tweets, serious allegations, executive resignations, national tragedies, and natural disasters, all at a breakneck speed. Partisanship intensified during a midterm election cycle that seemed to last an eon, but ended just in time to usher in the 2020 election circus. Though 2018 may have, at times, been wrought with contention, the year wasn’t all bad. From a PR and communications standpoint, this year marked a noteworthy rise in business activism and corporate social responsibility. There are a lot of trends that stick out in our 2018 rewind, but we’ll remember it most prominently as the year corporations stood up and spoke out on behalf of the issues they and their consumers care about.

This year saw major corporations capitalizing on opportunities to build trust and loyalty with a growing base of consumers who demand brands use their influence to make a difference. As Clyde Group’s Chief Strategy Officer, Alex Slater, outlined in his recent piece “Who’s Spent the Most on the Midterms? Would You Believe Brands?”, major corporations’ approach to political activism has evolved over the past few years and through the last few (grueling) election cycles. It’s no longer about capitalizing on political events simply to sell a product, it’s about selling an ideology that resonates with a target audience of consumers to build long-term brand affinity and, yeah, to sell a product. Millennials and Gen Z-ers who believe corporations should use their influence to impact political and cultural issues outnumber their counterparts in older generations. The widespread critique of millennials’ ability to ruin just about everything from diamonds to tuna to divorce indicates what some might describe as an imperious ability to set and wreck trends. Brands are taking their influence seriously.

The most illustrative example lies in Nike’s polarizing and historic Colin Kaepernick ad, which was lauded by many, but drove others to burn every swoosh in their wardrobes. Nike took a gamble on an issue that, according to a Morning Consult poll, is the most inflammatory among Trump voters and one of the issues least likely to increase favorability among consumers overall. The returns on the risk, however, were worth it. A month later, Nike’s stocks had increased five percent, indicating an all-time high. In kneeling alongside Kaepernick, Nike aligned itself with a growing demographic of progressive consumers who expect brand values to reflect their own beliefs, and sent a message to those who disagree that their support, or lack thereof, isn’t necessary to their success. In fact, opponents’ backlash made them better. It multiplied the campaign’s initial success by boosting visibility and keeping supporters engaged and energized.

Brands have also attempted to win consumer favorability with progressive CSR initiatives, especially those aimed at tackling climate change, an issue that corporations like Lyft and Patagonia took seriously despite (and in some cases, in direct response to) a severe lack of substantive action at the federal level. Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” (which was introduced in late 2017 but advanced in 2018 when Patagonia sued President Trump to protect Bear Ears National Park, and can be considered a harbinger for the wave of activism that followed) cuts right to the chase and encourages consumers to join their fight for public land, and, as Senior Associate Dan Cummins detailed in his recent piece “Lyft Goes Green,” Lyft recently announced that it will purchase carbon offsets from environmental sustainability company 3Degrees to ensure all of its rides are carbon-neutral moving forward. High fashion has also committed to enforcing more sustainable practices in an effort to combat global warming. Burberry, Stella McCartney and Adidas are among the 40 brands in support of a fashion industry charter for climate change, unveiled during COP24 in Poland, that aligns with goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. Making an effort to be more environmentally friendly is a winning cause among consumers. According to a Morning Consult poll, 71 percent of consumers have a more favorable view of brands who decide to do so.

An environmental crusade might be a relatively safe bet for companies aiming to make a difference and a good impression, but speaking out against gun violence is surely more polarizing. This proved to be the case for Delta and American Airlines, who decided to end their relationships with the NRA after the deadly shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Dick’s Sporting Goods also reacted to the shooting with a controversial decision when it announced it would no longer sell assault weapons. Though the retailer was denounced by several right-wing groups, the decision’s overall success can be measured in sales, which were 4.6 percent higher in the first quarter of 2018 than they were in the first quarter of 2017. When brands put their money where their corporate values are, it appears that consumers follow suit.

The positive reception of a brand’s CSR or activism goes a long way for positive PR, especially for companies like Lyft, which, at the convergence of the tech and gig economy industries, faces intense scrutiny simply by association with other bad actors in the space, or Nike, which, lest we forget, outsources most of its manufacturing to cheap labor overseas. It helps them win a reputation as a trusted brand in American households and in the media.

When corporations like Lyft, Patagonia or Nike take a stand, they demonstrate an effort to cut through the noisy, live stream of 24/7 political debate and dissent with action and set a precedent for other brands. In addition to the exaggerated polarization that plagued 2018, the past year can be characterized by the sheer number of marches, protests and counter-protests organized by a base of consumers that are increasingly more politically active, aware, frustrated and demanding of change. If brands want to grab their attention and win their loyalty, they have to first appeal to their ideologies. They also must decide whether their bottom line is more important than being on the “right side of history” when it comes to issues like climate change, civil rights and gun control, and may find that the cost of alienating some is far outweighed by the support (in purchases and revenue) of others.

If 2018 surge of brand activism and CSR has taught us anything, it’s that complete neutrality, or worse, passivity is becoming less and less of an option, especially for brands struggling to win over persnickety consumers — and it’s all too easy to become obsolete and insignificant among the clamor. Overall, it’s clear that communications and advertising has undergone a fundamental change and shifts in consumers attitudes and, consequently, brand strategies will color how political groups, corporations and nonprofits speak and relate to the public for the foreseeable future.