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5 Rules for Effective Brand Activism

How to get brand activism right?

In a weird turn of events, today it’s not only becoming acceptable, it’s becoming the norm for brands to take a stand on different social, political and environmental issues. 

It’s not just because consumers and employees are expecting much more from the brands they buy and work for, our interconnected world is also making it more and more likely for companies to become embroiled in political debates. Consider the Cambridge Analytica controversy Facebook now finds itself in. 

It’s not just tech companies. In the midst of extreme controversy over the government’s immigration policy, a number of airlines have publicly stated they do not want their planes to be used to separate children from their families. Department store Nordstrom’s recently announced it won’t be carrying Ivanka Trump’s clothing line anymore.

Staying silent can be just as harmful. A new study by Sprout Social found that 66% of respondents want brands to weigh in on social and political issues. For consumers aged 18-34, this number was even higher at 73%. 

The upside is, when done right, these consumers are 53% more likely to express brand loyalty, 44% more likely to buy more and 28% more likely to publicly praise the company. However, if respondents disagree with a brand’s message, 53% are likely to purchase less from the company, one-third could be induced to boycott the brand altogether and 20% would publicly criticize it. 

As you can see, there’s virtually no middle ground. Brands will have to become more socially, politically and environmentally active. Crafting the right message can have a positive impact on your brand, but taking the wrong step could be a PR disaster. Here are five rules to guide you through the right way to do brand activism.


Start inside the office

Changing the world should start in the workplace. There’s nothing worse than a company that touts its morals and good deeds externally, while mistreating the people who devote their ideas, energy and time with loved ones to it. Not only is this wrong, in today’s hyper-connected world employee mistreatment is being broadcast on social media and platforms like Glassdoor.
Sexual harassment, severe inequality and the corporate responses to these allegations have wracked several major tech companies, most notably Uber, leading to a massive drop in users and mounting lawsuits. A study by Mintel found that 56% of consumers would not buy products they deem to be unethical. The top indicator of ethical behavior cited by respondents was employee treatment.
Meanwhile, taking a stand for the rights of your employees is a move that will gain you both a loyal employee and customer base. Remember, your employees are your company’s best brand ambassadors.
When Trump announced the government would be rescinding the DACA program (allowing people who entered the US illegally when they were underage to live and work there) A good brand activism example is Microsoft. They condemned the decision and announced it would enter into a legal battle if any of its 39 DACA recipients faced deportation. These words were followed up by the company entering into a joint lawsuit with Princeton University against the government. 

Consider the impact your business has

American Airlines was the first of a number of airlines this year to ask the government not to use its planes to transport children being separated from their families under Trump’s Zero-tolerance policy. A public statement on the company’s website states:
“The family separation process that has been widely publicized is not at all aligned with the values of American Airlines — we bring families together, not apart… We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it.”
This year Google decided not to renew a contract it has with the Pentagon after 4,000 of its employees signed a petition for, “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”
These decisions may cost these companies in the short run but in the long run, they’ll benefit greatly by clearly defining and standing by their values. 

Be genuine

The public can sense insincerity a mile away and you will suffer for it. Brands that try to take advantage of a cause just to push forward their agenda will not only lose their moral standing, they’ll also end up paying for it.
The clear example here is Pepsi’s PR disaster following the release of its ad featuring celebrity Kendall Jenner. In the ad, a protest for an unspecified cause ensues with Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police guard. Rather than taking a stance, it was clear the ad was trying to use the zeitgeist of the Black Lives Matter movement to its advantage, and viewers did not appreciate it. According to YouGov, in the aftermath of pulling and subsequently apologizing for the ad, the brand’s perception amongst millennials reached an eight-year low.
Feigning social activism is going to have the completely opposite effect. If your company decides to take a stance, it has to go all in with a strong, clear message and position. 

Dare to be controversial, but be prepared for the consequences

What if your brand’s cause is controversial? Your best target audience will be the people who share your brand’s values, lifestyle and outlook on the world. While those who don’t may purchase your product when its trendy, your most loyal customers are the ones who believe in your vision. If you’re going to take a controversial stance on an issue, be prepared. You will likely lose a portion of your trend focused clientele. But remember, to last past one-hit wonders and retro comebacks, your brand needs to be about more than just a product.
Nike’s ad featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick is one of the best recent examples of this. After kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality, Kaepernick was subsequently dropped from the league. This year the athlete starred in Nike’s 30th-anniversary campaign alongside the message, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Immediately following the ad some opponents began a “Nike just burn it” boycott of the company, setting Nike gear aflame on social media. But while this move may have alienated a portion of its consumers, Nike sales went up by 31% after running the ad and it received a record number of likes on social media. 

Make it part of your identity

Brand activism isn’t something new to the Trump era. While more brands than ever are taking stances on social, political and environmental issues, Patagonia has been an outspoken advocate of environmental conservation both in the US and abroad. Its most recent provocative campaign “The president stole your land” in response to the President’s decision to greatly reduce the size of two national monuments was therefore not a surprise or considered a rash move by any circumstances.
It was simply the brand embodying the identity and fire it has cultivated over the decades. Have people stopped wearing the brand in response? No. Instead, of courting customers with discounts and celebrities, it has gained one of the most loyal customer bases ever seen by being itself. Brand activism works.
Activism isn’t just a one-time thing. Once you take a stand you will be expected to step up and have a voice each time your values are threatened. Everything you do, every decision you make must reflect this. Own it, live it and enshrine it in your company’s purpose and values statements. Don’t be afraid to engage into a brand activism campaign. 

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