I’ve been involved in brand activism for years. When I worked for United Ways years ago companies joined volunteer days that we organized. Employees worked together to help local nonprofits. Those days still exist today and are a great way for companies to bond, be present in their communities and help others in need.
Today, I work for a company that helps brands find out from their customers and employees what social causes they care about by engaging with them and asking questions.
With so much going on in the world, I wanted to take the opportunity to dive into the state of brand activism today and share tips on how companies can get involved.
In this article, I discuss:
- What is brand activism?
- How do you do you do brand activism?
- The importance of brand activism.
- How do you know what customers and employees care about?
What is brand activism?
At its core, brand activism means that a company (aka a brand) ties its business activity to a social cause. Sometimes it’s also referred to as being socially active or as social responsibility.
For example, before the pandemic many events added social responsibility components like collecting donations, a volunteer activity for attendees or something similar.
At the Virtual Insight Summit, Voxpopme and Zappi donated to nonprofits for every registration. The project was announced as follows:
Together we can make meaningful change within the research community surrounding the important topic of diversity, equity and inclusion! Your registration donates $1 to each of our community partners: Colour of Research (CORe) and Insights in Color. Register today and spread the word!
Conscious capitalism is another term, said Gilad Barash, vice president of analytics at Dstillery, on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” Dstillery is a data science company that creates audiences for market researchers based on digital signals.
“As a consumer I’m being a lot more aware of where I spend my money,” said Jenn Vogel, vice president of marketing at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk.” “It’s not just about the product or the price. It’s more about the brand ”
Oversimplified, brand activism means companies use their resources to help make the world a better place.
How do you do brand activism?
Today, brand activism can come in a number of ways:
- Participation in events like the United Way one.
- Donations to charitable causes.
- Public stands on issues affecting our communities. This could come in the form of articles, livestreams/podcasts and ads, for example.
- Tying in a new product launch to a social issue.
- Hiring diverse team members and vendors/partners.
Some companies choose to not do anything, but depending on the severity of the issue in the community that might not be a good strategy.
“Some consumers will see that as being complicit,” Gilad said. “Silence is no longer a refuge.”
Years ago, in communications, we had rules: We get involved in this but not that. For some topics that’s fine, but when it comes to severe or dangerous situations that affect many people, brands likely have to consider taking a stand today.
Is doing brand activism a good thing?
“There’s an expectation that the companies that are seeking their dollars should share their values,” said Gilad. “They want to see some involvement from the brands they love in the things they care about.”
Sticking with the United Way example, I know that some people choose the banks that participated in part because they stood for making the community better.
Why is brand activism important and why now?
Firstly, socially responsible brands can make our communities better. That can also lead to closer relationships with our customers. It’s so much harder to drop a brand if the brand also stands for what I stand for.
Gilad calls it a “social context” that now exists between consumers and brands. When values align, consumers are more likely to spend more, Gilad said.
In part, brand activism is top of mind now because it’s so much easier to connect with brands for consumers. They can easily tweet at their favorite brand, see what they post (or not post) and can easily send their feedback, including through video survey platforms.
“There’s just a lot more visibility,” Gilad said. “There’s more information on how brands spend their money and who they are contributing to politically. It’s become a bigger issue now especially with all the things going on in the world.”
So there’s an actual business reason why brand activism matters.
“Especially today when we are trying to engage with younger audiences,” Gilad said. “Your Gen Zs and your Millennials. They care about these things. That’s the way to garner more interest.”
Read next: How to get feedback from younger consumers
How do you know what customers and employees care about?
“What are some of the different ways to go about learning what is really important to those buyers?” asked Jenn.
“The good news is they are happy to tell you,” Gilad said.
Younger consumers are already:
- sharing pictures on social media
- tagging brands with their thoughts
- giving feedback
“It’s a matter of listening,” Gilad said.
From there you can combine the behavior analysis with asking consumers, for example through video surveys.
Reviewing behaviors doesn’t usually tell you the motivation behind the behavior. Asking consumers about their motivation behind an action can uncover additional insights.
“It’s important to get a rounded picture from all the sources,” Jenn added. “Using them together is really powerful.”
How can brands implement being socially active?
“Brands need to be very deliberate about it,” Gilad said. “History is awash with examples where brands have not gotten it right.”
Gilad offers two rules of thumb.
1. Mean it!
“Don’t be performative,” he said. “People can tell if you are just doing it for the sake of doing it. The inauthenticity can alienate customers.”
Highlight your social responsibility activities prominently. Take Patagonia. The clothing company dedicates a website section to its cause of doing something about climate change.
“That’s part of their whole being,” Gilad said. “If you are just doing a campaign it may come off as opportunistic or insincere.”
In addition, try to have some action involved: What are you doing about it? How is your company being socially active?
Example: Ben & Jerry’s
Ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s also discusses how they believe ice cream can change the world, including in human rights/dignity, social/economic justice and the environment.
“Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s – they have a history of action,” said Jenn. “So when they do communicate something that they care about it is very authentic.”
Some brands might be cautious to start because of some of the negative examples they’ve seen. What happens if they appear performative but do actually mean it?
That’s why action is so important. Say something but then also do something!
Sometimes negative backlash doesn’t tell the whole story either. Think about Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign. It received a ton of negative press but Nike share of voice skyrocketed and so did sales. Some people complained. Some burned their Nike shoes in the streets. Others bought Nike products in response to the social stand.
After the George Floyd murder, Nike ran anti-racism ads that said “Don’t do it,” a play on its usual “Just do it.” In addition, Nike also discussed other steps related to the issue – like hiring for diversity, donations and internal communications.
“It wasn’t just a marketing campaign,” Jenn said. “It’s got to be more than that.”
2. Do it right
“Even if your intentions are good, it’s important that you don’t offend anyone,” Gilad said. “And the only way to do that is by having a diverse team of people at the company making those decisions.”
Diverse teams can bring their own viewpoints to collaborations. Team mates can then share their feedback and ideas based on their experiences.
Eva Tsai of Google shared this example of why diversity is so important to begin with:
“Don’t hurry just for the sake of doing it,” Gilad added. “Don’t just put up a statement on your website or a black square on your social media. Those things tend to be performative. I would recommend to stop, sit down and think what you want it to look like. What you want maybe a year down the road to look like. And then start implementing those things.”