Brand Activism in Today’s Marketplace

February 21, 2017 | by Anna Woodward

It’s safe to say that advertisers are always on the hunt for new ways to engage and connect with consumers. Sometimes that’s humor, sometimes it’s a saccharine heart-tugging narrative and sometimes it’s brand activism, going a little deeper and aiming for the moral center.

In 1971, America was still in the Vietnam War and the idea of universal love and harmony was a huge aspiration for people, especially young people. Coke used this message of multiculturalism, harmony and happiness for its “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” TV spot. Gathering attractive teenagers from around the world, Coke sold the idea of world peace and soda to the masses through a melodic song. The content wasn’t explicitly political but it’s message was clear. To this day that is one of the most iconic commercials of all time.

These days it seems like political and social issues pervade every area of our culture. Preaching a message of peaceful inclusivity is still very much a framework for ads, but it’s not enough to simply share a general message of positivity. Big brands are coming out in support or opposition of incredibly divisive social issues.

Family brands like Campbell’s and Honey Maid have been both commended and boycotted for their use of same-sex couples in advertising. Dove has taken feminist advertising to a new level. Google used the journey of a transgender man in a TV spot. These brands, which have been around for a long time, are able to take a chance on subjects like these because of their steadfastness in the market—Google, boycotted or not, isn’t going anywhere.

But for newer, emerging brands, social justice isn’t just a one-off campaign idea or a jump onto the topical bandwagon. Social responsibility is very much woven into the fabric of who certain brands are, and it’s built in from the very start. Companies like Toms and Warby Parker have charity and activism as a central component of their business model. And those qualities of transparency, global awareness and social justice are major selling points for people, especially young consumers.

According to the American Marketing Association, millennials not only appreciate social responsibility in brands but more or less demand it. Cone Communications cites that millennials are “66% more likely to engage with brands when issues of social responsibility are brought to the forefront.” In a consumer landscape where nearly every market is saturated with options, people are choosing to shop with companies that align with their beliefs. They’re putting their money where their values are, effectively making themselves “activist consumers.”

That desire for social justice can also drive consumers to rapidly turn against companies that misstep in this tenuous environment. Recently the popular ride-sharing program, Uber, faced a major backlash for discounting its service amid a taxi strike in New York City. Customers launched a boycott of the brand with the hashtag “#DeleteUber,” resulting in nearly 200,000 people deleting Uber from their phones, pledging to use its competitors instead. The company quickly pivoted, immediately aligning its opinion with that of the masses. However, the damage was done and the court of public opinion has ruled against Uber. Just as easily as consumers can hand their money to brands who support their values, they can yank it away from those who don’t.

Whether brand activism is viewed as another marketing tool or a genuine attempt to use a strong platform to influence and reflect a changing culture, the trends show that more and more consumers expect and respect a commitment to social awareness. Moving forward, marketers should think carefully and strategically about building their brand’s voice and platform in a way that evokes authenticity and genuine consideration for the issues that are close to consumers’ hearts.

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