The Two Edged Sword of Brand Activism.

Bob Morris
Nov 11, 2020 · 9 min read

Among the synonyms for fake you’ll find: artificial, cheat, fraudulent, false, charlatan, feign, counterfeit, phony, pretend and deception. If you take the time to pull back the covers off brand activism, you’ll find what is essentially the definition of fake. Oh yes, I’ll be the first to admit that there are “purpose built” brands that are activist / causal and that they live up to their promise. Among these brands you’ll find REI, The North Face, Bombas, Tom’s, Ben and Jerry’s, etc. So, while it’s possible to have an activist foundation and to live up to the promise without compromising, the reality across the spectrum of brands is stark and disheartening.

Activism by definition is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.¹ With this in mind, the key issues I’ll address as the collective of your intellect, biases and perspectives intersect as you consume this article include:

  • Who decides what matters?

Who Decides What Matters?

Without getting into case law, a company is essentially an artificial person — also known as corporate personhood.² It’s not lost on consumers that brands are closely aligned with the philosophical beliefs of the founders or the current leaders. Decades ago, most brands operated outside of highly contentious issues that were contextual to the “boundaries” of politics or societal shifts. The ability to operate independent of the environment in which the brand existed (e.g. wars, cultural clashes, economic prosperity or challenges, etc.) was a hallmark of brand management. Today, brands live within OTTs, traditional networks, apps, games, social platforms, experiential, in-store and on… The role of a brand has shifted and, as such, the “ownership” and the voice has changed. The decision to step into an issue or a series of issues as a collective position used to be reserved for those not faint of heart. Ownership of why, how, when and who as it relates to what matters to a brand was historically driven by executive committees at the Board level. Rarely was Brand Management empowered to make wholesale decisions related to “taking a stand” on a matter of cultural significance. This changed with 4 key shifts:

  1. The digital conversation — Seriously, “We’re actually going to talk to our consumers?” Early on, brands became active on social channels with the exclusive objective of using the medium as a bullhorn, similar to traditional network advertising. The reality was stark and brutal. People don’t want to be interrupted in what’s perceived as “their” channel nor to be limited in their ability to share thoughts and feedback, whether constructive or not, to a brand. Once brand management understood the opportunity along with their agencies and internal teams (that’s for another time), the choice regarding what matters, the tone of the brand, the style of communication and the balance between a dialog and monologue had to be answered. For many brands, it was simple. Don’t offend and “Oh, by the way — monetize the channel.” However, for a few, it was an opportunity to step out on the high wire of risk.

Control of brand messaging, positioning, etc. and associated issues such as activism are typically owned by very few people within a company (SVP, Brand, CMO, VP, Marketing, etc). So, what does this have to do with the issue of who decides what matters? Historically, bigger brands have hired from MBA programs such as Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, The University of Chicago or Wharton. If you’re a brand manager, you typically have 18 months to make a mark in order to continue your upward career trajectory. Relying on the creative work of the individual who served in your role previously essentially means turning on your personal career limiting light. With this in mind, each Brand Manager from Associate to Senior focuses on what they can do to make a mark during their tenure. This pushes the boundaries and ultimately opens the door to alignment of brand narratives to become more activist. The more activist, the more unearned media value, the more visibility, the higher the sales, the lower the cost, which equates to a more rapid promotion. This is one scenario, and clearly not all brands become activist.

The Risk of Alienation

Activism — yes, defy the odds, align to a cause, become a powerful voice. Wait, our customers are pushing back!. A hashtag (#) appeared that’s trending negatively against the brand. The media didn’t accept our position as we anticipated, and now we’re in crisis mode. The polar opposite: we gained 1M followers on Twitter. The brand is now the rage on TikTok. Quid is showing the brand trending off the chart. Let’s be honest — most brands that elect to take an activist position dip their toes in the water first. Hesitant, resistant, leery… they gingerly step in to see whether they create positive or negative feedback. Are they truly committed, or are they driven by the perceived value of commitment and support of cause?

Brands historically avoided anything that wasn’t a 90+ % guarantee through customer research. There are a few anomalies including Coca-Cola, but most elected to avoid anything that could be viewed as “polarizing.” Brands have natural perceptions — quality, affordability, availability, wellness, etc., so the question to be asked is why take a stance that creates risk of alienation? Companies spend enormous sums reformulating a product, testing, validating and taking changes to market — from packaging to product ingredients, everything changed or added represents risks to consumer preference and ultimately purchase behavior.

The most important question is simply Why? If a brand is going to take an activist stance on any issue, what’s the value to their existing customers or potential new customers? Is the intent motivated by revenue or a true belief in the cause? Can the brand stand up to the commitment, or is it “messaging” masquerading as a champion of a cause? Unless the decision is fundamentally impactful to the cause, let’s return to the question of why?

Can You Really Live Up to the Promise?

The first question is can brands and businesses avoid controversial social, political and economic controversies? The second, does a brand have to convey specific values? The third, is the brand truly authentic?

The risks are starkly evident. Choose to support a cause that’s on the wrong side of momentum and the brand has flirted with disaster. Choose the right cause and potentially benefit immensely. Examples of activism gone wrong permeate brand culture: Starbucks’ Race Together, focused on creating a dialog to address race relations in the U.S. after the shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Unfortunately, for a company whose product is targeted at “Hipsters,” soccer moms and business people with $5+ lattes in neighborhoods that don’t resemble the Southside of Chicago, it was a stretch too far into the realm of messaging activism vs. behaving activism. Pepsi’s choice of featuring Kendall Jenner in their attempt at delving into the Blue Lives Matter movement, The Real Thing, was at best, poorly timed and representative of misunderstanding the sensitivity of the matter. We can go on with a lengthy list: Dove, L’Oreal, H&M, mastercard, Walmart, KFC and Burger King. On the opposite end of the spectrum you’ll find Lush, Hey Girls, Skittles, Subaru, the venerable Ben & Jerry’s and The North Face.

Here’s where this issue gets challenging. Let’s start with the data. Mintel’s research shows that as many as 56% of Americans will stop purchasing from brands they view as being unethical. One-third of all consumers today will stop buying their preferred products if they lose trust in the brand, IBM’s 2020 Purpose and Provenance Drive Bigger Profits for Consumer Goods. When consumers think a brand has a strong purpose, they are 4.1 times more likely to trust the company. Zeno’s 2020 Strength of Purpose. In a global survey 91% of consumers stated they would likely to switch to a brand that supports a good cause, given comparable pricing and quality.

Brands should assess the foundational question of whether they are taking on a cause as an activist supporter because it’s a desperate attempt to get people’s attention or whether it is rooted in a commitment to the desired outcome of “real” change. Unfortunately, brands are built on the attention model with incredible inertia to continue down the well trodden path. Brands need to first, be incredibly judicious when selecting issues they choose to support and second, avoid “popularism” at the risk of being seen as pandering to the cause rather than serving as a champion.

The question of risk vs. reward is one that’s equivalent to odds in gambling. If in fact a brand stands by a cause and believes by adding its voice to the dialog that it can truly make change, then it may be worth the risk to achieve the end result. Brand activism creates an expectation from customers and advocates that the brand will live to a higher standard. While there’s a level of “forgiveness,” it’s typically short-lived with a return to an unrelenting critique for failure to address shortcomings. In certain instances, brands have the weight or, candidly, customers that choose to look past the failures, and the result is they can play both sides of an activist equation. Nike, for example, is the poster child for equality in their campaigns, while being roundly criticized for human rights violations as a supply chain of “sweat shops” combined with a historically significant track record of environmental failures. Few brands have the breadth and depth of voice to shout down their own failures through activism.

For those “on the line” in the roles of Category Management, Supply Chain, and Sales, the implications of a brand electing to take an activist position can cross the spectrum from devastating to incredibly valuable. The key is to understand when to step forward into an issue or to step back and how to message the rationale for the decisions. Risk mitigation and management is critical with an understanding that planning for multiple outcomes is imperative, while recognizing the path untrodden can be rough, while the destination has the potential to be incredible.

Share your thoughts and perspectives.

You can reach me on Twitter — @digitalquotient or on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/bobmorris/

¹ Oxford Language

² https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/company.asp — Sept. 28, 2020

³https://www.barkleyus.com/2019/06/05/research4 /

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +787K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Bob Morris

Written by

Founder, Bravery Group; Co-Founder, Trade (Acquired by ICF Next), #Strategy, #digitaltransformation #CX, #designthinking

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Bob Morris

Written by

Founder, Bravery Group; Co-Founder, Trade (Acquired by ICF Next), #Strategy, #digitaltransformation #CX, #designthinking

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store