The Evolution of Brand Activism

Not only does a successful brand clearly define a unique and ownable position in the market, they also deliver on their promise and make an emotional connection with their customers. Brand assets such as tradition and performance are still relevant to consumers; however, these are ceasing to determine solely whether a person buys from one brand over another.

Consumers now want to buy from companies that share their values and take a stand on social, environmental and political issues. They believe that governments are no longer able to solve all of society’s problems, so they expect brands to take action and create positive change. As a matter of fact, many people don’t trust governments at all and praise brands that take a stand against them.

For this reason, consumers have been shifting away from incumbent brands to non-established ones. They expect these legacy-free brands to be built on the pillars of responsible business practices, therefore being more trustworthy and ethical. That is why digitally native vertical brands (DNVB) have been on the rise lately.

Below are some examples of businesses that are playing an active role in tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges and making a positive impact on society:

In Business to Save the World

A brand’s mission defines its purpose and primary objectives, ultimately answering the question: “Why does this brand exist?” One brand whose initiatives over the years have really supported its mission – “We’re in business to save our home planet” – is Patagonia, the U.S. outdoor clothing manufacturer. Patagonia donates time, services and at least one percent of their sales to help numerous organizations throughout the world to fight global warming. Their core values include causing no unnecessary harm and using business to protect nature.

During Black Friday in 2011, amidst the competitors’ frenzy to sell, Patagonia sent an email to their clients surprisingly asking them not to buy their products. Instead, the company promoted the Common Threads eBay platform, where customers could purchase second-hand Patagonia clothes (Patagonia makes no money from Common Threads).

One big trend is that consumers have increasingly demanded transparency from brands. They want to know the origin of their products as well as how they were handled throughout all the supply chain stages. To meet their need of transparency, Patagonia created in 2014 the “Traceable Down” initiative, letting customers trace any down used in the brands’ clothes to animals that have not been force-fed nor live-plucked.

Recently, Patagonia was involved in a controversy regarding its famous vests, an icon both to the tech and financial industry. The company decided to change its policies for corporate sales clients, focusing now on selling only to companies engaged in charity or that support causes such as local communities and the environment.

Dream Crazy

Nike has been challenging the Trump government since the beginning: When the U.S. president declared an immigration ban from seven Muslin-majority countries, Mark Parker, President and CEO of the company emailed employees, urging them to fight any form of discrimination and reassuring the company’s commitment to diversity.

More recently, Nike launched a bold marketing campaign featuring the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand during the national anthem at an NFL game because of his views on how the country treats racial minorities. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. Nike donated to Know Your Rights, a charity created by Kaepernick’s to empower people of color.

Will Boys be Boys?

“We Believe in the Best in Men,” a recent ad campaign from Gillette, generated buzz as it depicted some negative conducts associated with men, such as bullying, homophobia, and sexual harassment. The brand tried to reinforce positive behavior, summoning men to be role models and say the right thing and act the right way, since “the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

As Gillette faces increasing competition from online subscription services such as Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, this campaign was arguably an attempt to make the brand more appealing to Millennials, who not only want convenience but also expect companies to be socially responsible corporate citizens.

The Risks of Alienating Some Customers

Despite the positive impact that brands expect to generate by supporting certain causes, sometimes taking a stance may come at the expense of losing clients: Many people accused Kaepernick of being unpatriotic and threatened to boycott Nike’s products. Social media was taken by storm with hashtags such as #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike, alongside images of burned Nike clothes and sneakers.

Similarly, many men found the “We Believe in the Best in Men” ad campaign insulting, menacing not to buy Gillette’s products anymore. Terms used in the ad such as “toxic masculinity” were seen as a stereotype of an entire gender. Gillette’s YouTube channel was flooded with negative comments.

Getting the Tone Right

According to a study conducted by Edelman in 2018, approximately two-thirds of consumers worldwide will buy or boycott a brand exclusively because of its position on a political or social issue. Moreover, 70 percent of Millennials would spend more with brands that support causes they are concerned about (Cone Communications, 2017).

Therefore, consumers expect brands to share their values and address some of the world’s most urgent issues. They expect brands to not only have a purpose but also to act upon it. The challenge, then, is finding the right intonation and assuring that the values to which a business stands for are aligned with their consumers.