Brand Activism: Taking a Stand on Social Justice Issues

Published on April 18, 2022
Author: Anthony Galasso
Brand Activism: Taking a Stand on Social Justice Issues

Brands tackling social justice issues isn’t a new or innovative concept. However, since the start of the pandemic, brand activism appears to have taken a more prominent role in the cultural zeitgeist, attempting to ease stress or provide solutions during what many brands have called ”these unprecedented times.”

But is it all falling on deaf ears? Perhaps not. In fact, 71% of consumers—and even potential employees—prefer brands that reflect their own beliefs, which factors into the decisions they make beyond product quality. So, when asked about this topic, it’s no surprise that the results are nearly the same with one study claiming “two-thirds of consumers say it’s important for brands to take stands on social and political issues.”

These metrics indicate a clear and present opportunity for brands to reveal their stance on social justice issues. However, it’s not as simple as slapping a hashtag on social media and calling it a day. Apparently, while many do think brand activism is important, most think brands tend to miss the mark.

Additional data claims “53% of consumers believe brands take a stand for PR and marketing purposes (known as woke-washing), and 35% perceive brands speaking out as ‘jumping on the bandwagon.’”

So, how do brands authentically reveal their stance on social justice issues without backlash? It all comes down to intention and execution.

Brand Activism: Intention

With so many brands expected to speak out while being scrutinized for their stance, it’s important to ensure the brand’s heart is in the right place by monitoring the three T’s: transparency, tone, and track record.

Transparency

The Internet is littered with misinformation already, and many people have begun to develop a collective sixth sense for it. So, when a brand begins to take a stand on social justice issues, the first questions people ask themselves are:

  • What does the brand gain from this?
  • Are they truly helping others or are they helping themselves?
  • How does this really help the general public?

For brands, being forthright, honest, and transparent about their intentions from the start maintains authenticity.

Tone

A brand can’t just signal their stance on social justice issues by coming out, guns blazing. The way their stance is communicated can make all the difference because, again, the Internet has a sixth sense for this kind of “look at me” attitude.

Instead, depending on the brand’s voice, it’s likely best to keep the “chest-thumping” to a minimum and focus on the task at hand. Be clear and sincere with a touch of humility to avoid being deemed “tone deaf.”

Track Record

What happens on the Internet…stays on the Internet. “Cancel culture” has run rampant over the past few years. And, in some cases, for good reason.

For some brands, brand activism is baked into their DNA. However, if a brand has a checkered past, it’s very likely someone will dig it up. Then, before it’s even trending on Twitter—BAM!—canceled. In this case, get ahead of the backlash, acknowledge past errors, make new intentions clear, and then…prove it.

Brand Activism: Execution

Even the best of intentions can lead to backlash if the effort doesn’t match. And when it comes to brand activism, that can make all the difference between taking an authentic stance on an issue and phoning it in.

Below is a short list of the types of executions brands have been known to use while attempting to take a stand. Some have been met with praise while others…not so much.

Product Gimmicks

Typically, product gimmicks show the least amount of effort, often being represented as novelty items simply meant to raise awareness.

Skittles, for example, is usually known for its off-the-wall TV spots and marketing campaigns. However, the “Taste the Rainbow” brand revealed all-gray packaging under the guise that “only one rainbow matters during pride.” While they did commit to generously donating $1 per pack sold to GLAAD as part of this Give the Rainbow campaign, the effort was met with criticism as “many consumers expressed concern that the message could be linked to white pride.” While it seemed their intentions were correct, their execution lacked. Oddly enough, the brand doubled down on the campaign for Pride Week a year later.

Other brand activism examples where product gimmicks have been met with criticism include the Starbucks Red Cup Controversy attempting to unite people during the holidays, BrewDog’s Pink IPA meant to promote gender equality, and Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke campaign, which excluded names traditionally given to those of Middle Eastern descent.

Celebrity Endorsements

Celebrities are a great way to gain extended reach. However, even though a brand and a celebrity may be aligned on a specific social justice issue, these endorsements don’t always guarantee success.

For example, Pepsi and Kendall Jenner partnered on a “protest” commercial depicting the celebrity attempting to resolve a Black Lives Matter protest by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. The spot was meant to be a nod to historical depictions of the 1967 Flower Power movement in which protestors placed flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ guns to protest the Vietnam War—pretty tone-deaf of Pepsi and Jenner to assume a can of soda had the same kind of stopping power.

On the other hand, Nike decided to support Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed from the NFL after taking a knee during the National Anthem. Kaepernick was featured in a simple advert that read “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” clearly speaking to the Black Lives Matter movement. With a large portion of their customers being young, black athletes, amplifying such a cause seemed like a worthy stance to take as it sparked a boycott…as well as $6 billion in earnings, a portion of which gets donated to Kaepernick’s ‘Know Your Rights’ charity. The track record matched the execution.

Selfless Solutions

The most effective form of brand activism is completely selfless—using power, resources, and influence to take a stand by solving real-world problems.

For instance, McDonald’s had been investing in a base of 850 restaurants in Russia over the past 30 years and promptly decided to close them all amid the crisis in Ukraine. Chris Kempczinski, chief executive of McDonald’s, said, “Our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine.” McDonald’s ability to simply toss a 30-year investment represents a powerfully selfless expression from a brand during one of the world’s most concerning issues.

Another example, AirBnb committed to providing free temporary housing to 20,000 refugees in 2021 in response to the crisis in Afghanistan with more than 7,000 hosts offering to open their doors. There were no gimmicks or celebrity endorsements—just good people with available resources dedicated to helping people in need.

Other brands may not have the power or resources necessary to solve real-world problems, but they might have the influence necessary to make clear, selfless statements. For example, since 2015, outdoor retailer REI has famously decided to forego profits on Black Friday by closing its doors on the year’s marquee sales event. Instead, the brand encourages people to spend more time outdoors while rejecting planet-damaging mass consumption, aligning with the brand’s key core values. Similarly, Patagonia encouraged people to forego Black Friday as well via their “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign intended to address consumerism and its role in today’s environmental crisis.

Let’s Create Together

Considering taking a stand against social justice issues with your brand—but not sure where to start? Drop us a line at info@againinteractive.com. Your success is how we measure ours.

Anthony Galasso

Part of AGAIN Interactive's spirited creative team since 2014, Anthony Galasso is passionate about all aspects of digital marketing from strategy through execution and beyond. In his spare time, Anthony also loves to travel, try new foods, plays drums, and hike with his beagle, Hailey.

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