Brand Activism is when a brand takes a stand to help drive change towards the most urgent problems facing society, based on its own beliefs, purpose and values. As Phiip Kotler and Christian Sarkar suggest in their book Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action, it is “how progressive businesses are taking stands to create a better world.” 

And lately we’ve seen many good examples, such as  Ben & Jerry’s efforts to end racism; the Penzey Spice company looting their own store in support of #BlackLivesMatter;  Burger King and McDonald’s sharing a kiss (pictured above) in support of gay pride; And Patagonia closing their stores so employees could join the Climate Strike. 

You could almost claim 2020 as the year of Brand Activism.

The 2020 factor

With COVID-19 taking hold in early March and then George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis — starting a series of riots, violence and civil unrest around the world — many feel we have reached a tipping point where the economic and social inequality that has plagued the nation for centuries must be driven out. And public pressure is starting to mount up and hold business and brands to account. 

According to Forbes, over 28 million Instagram users participated in #BlackoutTuesday, posting empty black tiles in silent (and some might say, empty) solidarity. More recently, shareholders worth a collective $620 billion, pressured Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to terminate their business relationships with the Redskins unless the team agreed to change its name. On Facebook, more than 200 big-brand spenders boycotted the platform  over its handling of hate speech. One could say 2020 has been a wake-up call for brands and businesses to step up to drive change where the government has been unsuccessful.

Brand Activism is here to Stay

Some groups dismiss Brand Activism and things like the temporary withdrawals from Facebook as little more than PR stunts. As founders of a social innovation and brand activation consultancy, we strongly believe Brand Activism is much deeper here to stay:

 And here are 5 reasons why: 

  1. Gen Z isn’t stopping: As Dr. Arlo Brady, CEO of Freuds, comments; “The recent rise of backyard activism is vital and it can often act as a ‘gateway drug’ for action on the Global Goals. Gen Z gets hooked on impact, much like a gondola-end BOGO deal in the supermarket that you spy from the street, it pulls you in”. Gen Z also has tremendous buying power—an estimated $143 billion in the United States alone. And let’s face it — buying power is power. 
  1. Activism moves the PR machine: As Adam Fetcher in Fast Company points out; “There are a lot of organizations that desire to emulate Ben & Jerry’s but lack a serious history of working on behalf of causes larger than their own success. There’s no manual, and there are no shortcuts to credibility. It requires a willingness to build a foundation that’s not driven by PR. If you can focus on impact over attention, the press will cover your efforts with the depth it merits — at a time when you actually deserve it.”  
  1. People expect Brands to fill the gap: “By choosing brands that align with their values, shoppers are voting with their wallets for the kinds of businesses they want in the world — and paving the way toward a more sustainable and just economy. We’re in an unfortunate time where Governments and Institutions provide less and less moral leadership and we now expect to see it from the brands we buy,” says Bthechange. Edelman’s Trust Barometer finds 81% of consumers say they expect brands to do the right thing and 71% say that placing profit before people will lose their trust forever. 
  1. Purpose-driven brands perform better: According to Deloitte, Purpose-driven companies witness higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors, all while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction. “This trend is only set to strengthen as young people around the world are growing up with a deeper sense of purpose than previous generations and are seeking out products that directly support causes about which they care.”
  1. Brand Activism is the road to Growth: The Deloitte report goes on to say“By leading with purpose, being authentic in how they tell stories and articulate their impact, focusing on all humans, and imbibing empathy, many of these companies are outpacing their competitors and leaving an impact on everyone they touch.” So if you are looking to buy into a brand that will grow in value and also help to make the world a better place –  choose an activist brand. 

As a B-corp that helps brands, retailers and non-profits activate purpose at retail, we wholeheartedly agree. Activism starts from the inside out. There is no rule book. There is no relief from responsibility and things aren’t always going to go to plan… and do you know what? That’s OK. Be authentic. Understand your unique purpose then connect the ‘why’ of your purpose with the ‘way’ of profit. Then, if the engine of commerce, fueled by social innovation and kept in check by an ever more conscious consumer can create sustainable, scalable solutions for what the world needs and what people want, then brands can and should become the most powerful instruments for change the world has ever seen.

Now that’s activism done right in our book.