Brand activism – is it the future?

How political should a company or brand be in today’s post-truth world? After backing American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who famously knelt during the national anthem before a game as a protest against racial injustice, Nike has no doubt. “Believe in something,” demands the latest version of its long-running ‘Just Do It’ campaign. “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

It’s a judgement call. Nike has judged it will be sacrificing a relatively small number of potential sales when compared to the new wave of consumers impressed by the sports giant’s overt brand activism. Nike, they will feel, stands for something. It’s not just a shoe and apparel maker.

Nike is not alone. To stand out today, companies are increasingly positioning themselves as ‘activists’ who are concerned with today’s issues in society – racial injustice, climate change, police brutality, immigration, poverty, whichever fits most snuggly into their brand story.

What consumers expect

To what extent, however, do consumers’ purchasing decisions depend upon a brand’s point of view? YouGov UK researched brand activism in the UK and the results were inconclusive – 42% of British people revealed they like brands that get involved in social issues and 52% of British people believe a brand should be able to express an opinion. But there are still large numbers of ‘don’t knows’.

“There is a whole group of people who are unengaged or disinterested, don’t really care when a brand gets involved on a social issue or don’t like it,” explains Amelia Brophy, head of data products at YouGov UK. “So it’s an area marketers should be cautious about going into.”

Drilling a little deeper into the YouGov research, however, yields more compelling data. When consumers were asked why they would want brands to reveal their views on social and political issues the most popular answer was: ‘I want to trust the brands that I interact with’.

Be authentic and be understood

For many other commentators, trust is the key to success. Sean Pillot de Chenecey, a strategy consultant and author of The Post-Truth Business: How to rebuild brand authenticity in a distrusting world, says: The number one issue for brands on a global basis is trust. Once you have trust, everything else is easy. If you don’t have trust, things get complicated.”

Brand activism is about a lot more than trumpeting the latest corporate social responsibility policy or slick marketing campaign. “The answer is not an advert that says ‘please trust us’,” de Chenecey continues. “This is about every part of the business, from the person manufacturing the product and where you’re sourcing the materials to how you’re sourcing them, in a circular economy. It’s holistic, about leadership, and CEOs getting a grip.”

Making a political statement can easily backfire if it is not perceived as authentic and part of a company’s DNA. Take Pepsi, which launched an advertising campaign starring Kendall Jenner leaving a modelling assignment to join a protest march. The energetic young crowd cheers loudly when she hands a can of Pepsi to a thirsty policeman. Social media exploded with outrage, however. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, tweeted a photo of her father being accosted by a policeman. The campaign was pulled. Pepsi apologised.

For this reason, corporate communications can often be risk-averse and unchallenging, but the objective should often be the opposite – to engage your potential clients and customers by telling thought-provoking and inspirational stories. Yes, you can even be controversial as long as you are also being genuine and revealing your corporate position.

You better believe it

Nike’s campaign with Kaepernick was hard hitting with many critics posting videos on social media burning Nike products with the hashtag #JustBurnIt. YouGov data on American Nike customers, however, suggests the majority of them approve of companies that have a clear if risky message and they also like brands that are willing to get involved on social issues. “Nike took a calculated risk,” Brophy adds. “It had a customer base ripe for a campaign that spoke to a social issue that those consumers believed in.”

The basic pillars of a successful brand in the future must be authenticity, transparency, credibility, respect for privacy and empathy, according to de Chenecey. Neutrality might increasingly cost sales; brands must take risks to attract consumers. He concludes: “As with Nike’s striking ad campaign, we can expect more brands to align themselves with the causes that are meaningful to consumers and boost their sense of wellbeing.”

At Paragon we enjoy the challenge of helping our clients develop and communicate their corporate stories in a fresh and compelling way. If you’d like to talk to us about updating your corporate position, we’d love to help. Why not contact our team?

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