Brand activism: what are the key principles and how can you get it right?

Whether it's activism by nature or nurture, substance is a must for for today’s brands, says Becks Williams, creative director at Given.

Colin Kaepernick in Nike campaign

In October, outdoor clothing brand Patagonia took a bold, activist position as campaigning ramped up for the presidential election.

The strapline “Vote the a**holes out” was emblazoned on a new line of shorts in a confident declaration by the brand of where it stood politically as a result of its climate commitments.

Just a year or so ago, this sort of action may have been met with criticism and derision, after all, should our shorts be telling us how to vote? But Patagonia’s decision was met with praise from many fronts, suggesting that the impetus and responsibility for brands to take activist positions had changed, and with 57% of consumers prepared to boycott a brand that doesn’t align with their social beliefs, getting this right from the point of view of the customer has commercial implications for today’s brands.

Activism by nature

Patagonia’s confident stance wouldn’t have shocked its customers, or at least customers who have followed its mission statement and approach. The brand has very much been founded on activist principles and Patagonia spokesperson Corley Kenna said specifically of the move; “we have been standing up to climate deniers for almost as long as we’ve been making these shorts.”

They follow a long line of brands who have activist approaches baked-into their DNA, including Ben & Jerry’s, the Body Shop and LUSH, to name a few, and they have an important lesson to teach brands new to activism in terms of integrity and substance.

When it comes to taking an activist approach, it must fit with a brand’s intrinsic code, otherwise you are no more than a ‘woke’ business. For ‘born’ activists, this can mean the right to campaign or comment on a whole range of issues – Ben & Jerry’s for example have campaigned on issues ranging from oil drilling in the Arctic to a recent campaign addressing racial injustices in the cannabis industry.

In the same way, in tandem with making bath bombs, LUSH has spoken out on many issues across the spectrum of human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation. Despite the diversity of issues, customers who support brands with activist spirits and agendas expect them to stand up and have a point of view. If this is your founding code, you have a right to take a stance on any number of causes.

Activism by nurture

But you don’t need to be an activist brand at a foundational level to have the right to speak out, and you don’t need to forfeit your customers. You just need to bring the credentials of integrity and substance to your choice of cause. It must ring true with your voice and identity as a brand.

Two years ago, Nike caused a stir by using political activist Colin Kaepernick as the face for their 30th anniversary celebrations. The move proved controversial for many Americans who subsequently called for a boycott on Nike and even set fire to their products on Twitter. But overall, the decision was the right one for Nike.

As the smoke cleared, overall sales lifted and the campaign generated at least $43m worth of media coverage. The critical reason it worked for Nike was that it was relevant, credible for its fans and substantiated by the way the brand behaves and operates. Nike had picked an issue that was important for its audience and, with a long heritage of using sportspeople and celebrities as brand ambassadors from a variety of backgrounds, it had the right to be an activist on this issue. When Tiger Woods, for example, turned professional, Nike launched the ‘Hello World’ campaign, in which Woods discussed racial discrimination in golf.

When a brand is not an activist by ‘birth,’ the type of campaign which brands can authentically take their stand on will, and should, look very different because they must be a reflection of a brand’s unique heritage and the priorities of their specific audience.

Brands today have a responsibility and opportunity to take an activist approach and use their commercial clout and public platform to make a difference in the world – even if they have never done this before. But it must be built into the business. If activism isn’t in your DNA, the type of cause you select must reflect your brand’s priorities and voice. That way, whatever you champion, your core customers will still recognise you and trust your motivations have substance.

  • Becks Williams is creative director at Given, an agency aimed at purpose-driven brands.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.