Brand activism: a risk worth taking, a movement we can trust?

When we talk about brand activism in today’s online world, what comes to mind?

Perhaps, like me, you picture those wars waged from the virtual frontline of social media: mile-long posts on CEOs’ LinkedIn feeds; beautifully produced films with emotive, Oscar-worthy storylines; influencers sharing impassioned monologues better suited to a TedTalk than Tiktok… In short, a cacophony of content, backed by bold-minded business leaders to inform, debunk, expose and de-platform. Our screens have become the new stage for protest, asking consumers and companies alike to take a stand on social issues. For businesses, the big question is whether they have the gumption to build brand activism into their strategies, a high-risk move with big potential pay-off.

Why take it from me?

Before we delve further, you might be wondering what an Account Director at an education and behaviour change agency has got to do with brand activism. My answer is simple: activism is a catalyst for behaviour change, and it is nothing without education. Giving brands the tools to have a voice, to speak out for purpose, is at the heart of what we do at Hopscotch. Now, let’s be clear; I’m not saying that we are a brand activism agency (I would need to run that slightly radical rebrand by our directors first). But through our clients’ social purpose programmes, campaigns and engagements with teachers, parents and policymakers, we are practising those principles of activism on a daily basis. This gives me a pretty good view of the perspectives from either side of the fence (or screen, to use a more appropriate metaphor): the companies putting their message out there, and the audiences it reaches.

So, how can brands make sure that their audiences buy into the message?

One thing’s for certain: when it comes responding to brand activism campaigns, passivity isn’t an option. Social purpose-driven marketing effectively gives consumers carte blanche to put companies’ integrity under the microscope. This, inevitably, also invites scepticism. Why? Because no matter how well-considered, sensitive, and thought-provoking, you and your target audience know that there’s more behind that campaign than an unyielding determination to save humanity. Reputation, likeability, financial gain – there is no hiding that these are all at play as well. The bigger question is whether that’s such a bad thing?

Let’s break it down. Even before the pandemic hit, activism in its more traditional sense had seen a resurgence, and nowhere more so than amongst the coming-of-age consumers, Gen Z. Their story has been told so many times, it hardly bears repeating: the tired accusations of being too glued to their phones to see the world around them, too money-driven to be morally driven, too busy making Tiktok videos to make change.

And of course, they showed us all. Gen Z are not only one of the most socially engaged and politically active generations, but also the population’s next big wave of critical consumers. Information is power and, as digital natives in a digital age, it is available to them in abundance. Luckily, they have largely decided to use their power for good, leveraging their influence to demand brands to be better, more ethical, sustainable, and transparent. Just Google ‘Gen Z’ and ‘Brands’, and you’ll get hundreds of hits: from blogs telling businesses how to woo young consumers with honest, value-rich products, to warnings of the proportion of Gen Z'ers boycotting brands they morally disagree with.  

The global pandemic has only thrown all of this into sharper focus, and enormously affected consumer behaviour beyond the younger members of our spending population. Shared social consciousness, a stronger awareness of the fragility of our world, a shattering of the notion that change and progress can only happen outside our homes – all of these things have affected what customers want, how they want it… and when do they want it? Now! Covid has effectively broken down the fourth wall when it comes to how people interact with brands: companies must now drive change, challenge status quos, support those in need, all while continuing to provide the great products and services that everyone loves. Not asking for much, right?

On top of this, the world’s massively increased reliance on online channels has completely flipped the script when it comes to social media: once perceived as a more passive space, The widespread evidence is that virtual networks have become essential, powerful tools for working, seeking community, and engaging with brands.

As a business, is it possible for me to truly build trust through brand activism?

You may be thinking that there is still a shade of cynicism to this story when it comes to brands’ part in it. After all, it’s clear that when there is a product to sell or an image to promote, there’s often another agenda. By putting activism into a campaign, you are telling your customers, as critical consumers, that it’s fully within their rights to question its true intentions, right? Maybe so; but to avoid spiralling into an unhelpful maze of existential crises and moral quandaries, let’s take a step back and remember three important things:

  1. A campaign and message is just a shopfront; it’s what behind it that counts. Do you represent and elevate something real, tangible, relevant, and in touch with your target audience’s world? And, crucially, do you have the true values, relevance and demonstrable impact to back it up?
  1. Your consumers will think with their hearts, not just their heads. Social purpose and activism is about emotion and compassion, not just analysis of the facts. Intuition, coupled with a respect for subjectivity and others’ lived experiences, is key to making a campaign successfully authentic.
  1. Brand activism is a hugely risky business strategy, so take some credit. Consumers know that it’s not just your revenue, but your reputation that’s at stake. If you successfully put out a smart and impactful campaign, it’s a win-win: the company thrives, and the cause you’re supporting does too. Most consumers will recognise and respect this, even if the campaign itself wasn’t quite their cup of tea.

OK, so what’s the conclusion?

As with any risky business move, there is no highway code, no mathematical formula for ensuring that a brand activism campaign will always land perfectly. Whilst that might not sound reassuring at first glance, it also goes to the heart of what it’s all about: activism means being subjective, opinionated, sometimes divisive. If people react strongly to your campaign, that’s not always bad news. When done well, brand activism breeds compassion, celebrates our differences and gives voices to the issues that matter. Now more than ever, I’d say that alone makes it a risk worth taking.

Let’s end on a positive… my top brand activism campaigns from the last year:

    Bodyform’s ‘Womb Stories’

There aren’t many ad campaigns that have brought me to tears in the right way, and this one did. Beautifully executed, the visual tapestry of animation and footage aims to normalise the too oft-unspoken stories of infertility, endometriosis, menopause, periods, birth and miscarriage. Each story has a corresponding article which further explores these topics in informative, insightful and candid ways. The stats speak for themselves, with over 1.1.m views and 54.6k likes on Instagram.

Ben and Jerry’s podcast: Who we are, a chronicle of racism in America

Long known for its activism work, in particular its recent support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, America’s best-loved ice-cream brand is now taking to the aural stage to speak out about the country’s lesser known racial injustices. Each podcast, as well as delivering 30-minute episodes about the history of racism in America and is link to modern-day issues, is coupled with a list of links to other informative resources, making sure we not only listen in the moment, but keeping learning after.

TimeOut: Taking Pride Worldwide

When Pride events were put on hold in 2020, TimeOut decided to do something to make sure people wouldn’t miss out, whilst raising vital funds to support LGBTQIA+ organisations to get through the pandemic. Their curated livestream event, featuring performances, speeches from activists and addresses by public figures, got over 57 million views from communities and allies across the world.

About the author

Hannah Furrer

Hannah has risen up the ranks from intern, and hasn’t looked back! She heads up Shell’s STEM competition, The Bright Ideas Challenge, supports the running of LifeSkills created with Barclays, and is leading the launch of a flagship educator wellbeing programme for Bupa. She loves getting creative with her projects and seeing the impact her work can have on individuals and their communities.

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