To act, or not to act

Brand activism

In the marketing echo chamber, it can be easy to get disenchanted with your role. Nowadays if your hair gel, extruded potato snack or toothpaste is not involved in some planet-saving endeavour or fight for human rights, then the zeitgeist implies we should be asking ourselves ‘why do we bother’.

‘Brand activism’ has become the focus of a lot of attention, especially in the last year or so. The ‘father of marketing’, Philip Kotler has just published a book subtitled “from purpose to action”. But what is brand activism, why has it become popular and should your brand be taking this approach?
Brand Activism
Brand activism implies taking action that’s in accord with a brand (or company’s) values and beliefs. Whereas ‘purpose’ is why we exist, activism is what we’re doing about it – often it’s an agenda to tackle some of society’s biggest problems. Many describe it simply as standing up for something.
Kotler notes that activism can be progressive (such as Body Shop’s famous championing of animal rights) or regressive (such as the health claims made in the 50’s by tobacco companies and apparently supported by doctors).
How brand activism became a thing
Kotler sees it as a natural evolution from the corporate social responsibility programmes that have been emerging across the corporate world for many years now. He makes the distinction that it is not solely driven by marketing or corporate agendas, but by underlying drive for justice and fairness for all.
Bill Gates – through the $50bn Bill & Melinda Gates trust – is an active philanthropist in the fields of education and healthcare.
Many – including several high-profile business leaders – point to the plummeting levels of trust in government and institutions, something especially pronounced in Europe and the United States. They take the view that business and brands have a moral duty to fill the vacuum and be a force for good. Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer appears to validate that view, with over 75% of UK survey respondents saying CEO’s should drive change themselves, rather than waiting for government leadership (+19% on the previous year).
What’s striking is how often employees are mentioned alongside consumers by the executives who championing activism. The stats suggest that millennials – and more so, centennials – are increasingly interested in doing jobs that have an impact beyond profit.

Kotler identifies six categories of brand activism, together with some examples of causes under each.

  • Social activism includes areas such as equality – gender, LGBT, race, age, etc. It also includes societal and community issues such as education, school funding, etc.
  • Legal activism deals with the laws and policies that impact companies, such as tax, workplace, and employment laws.
  • Business activism is about governance – corporate organisation, CEO pay, worker compensation, labour and union relations, governance, etc.
  • Economic activism may include minimum wage and tax policies that impact income inequality and redistribution of wealth.
  • Political activism covers lobbying, voting, voting rights, and policy (gerrymandering, campaign finance, etc).
  • Environmental activism deals with conservation, environmental, land-use, air and water pollution laws and policies.
Anita Roddick was a human rights activist and environmental campaigner, but was best known as the founder of The Body Shop
Who’s leading the charge?

Several firms are noted for their activist credentials, with many more currently repositioning themselves to participate more fully. Here are a few examples.

HSBC – The bank is trying to reach out to what it’s CEO calls a “Disunited Kingdom”, it’s CEO citing the EU referendum in 2016 as something that has made the country “meaner and angrier”. The campaign continues to run, although the bank has more recently said it is not about Brexit.
Yoplait – the dairy brand has attracted fans – as well as critics – for its “Mom On” campaign in the US. The brand is tackling what it calls “mum shaming” – the guilt induced in parents who feel bombarded by patronising and preachy information about good child-raising.
Patagonia – widely-recognised for its ethical model, the clothing manufacturer Patagonia has rebranded itself ‘The Activist Company’. According to its publicity “At Patagonia, the protection and preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours. It’s the reason we’re in business and every day’s work.”
Ben & Jerry’s – Under outgoing CEO Paul Polman, Unilever took great strides to make its businesses more sustainable. But since it was invented – and long before being bought by Unilever – the Vermont-based ice cream brand has tackled areas of social injustice (like climate change, race & sexuality) that most brands have historically avoided.
Body Shop – recently the Body Shop announced its intention to turn its stores into “activist hubs” in order to overcome difficult trading conditions on the UK high street and attract more visitors to its shops. It’s long history of campaigning about animal testing has now morphed into a focus on gender equality with a vision “to be a real feminist brand” according to its Head of Activism.
P&G – has long challenged stereotypes about women. It’s award winning campaign for Always called ‘Like a girl’ drove double-digit increases in brand equity scores and cleverly turned a phrase that had become an insult into an empowering message.
Stella Artois – the beer brand continues to draw attention to the global water crisis in partnership with the charity In a number of markets, it’s running promotions to fund clean water for disadvantaged communities in developing countries. Fronted by Matt Daman, the brand is aiming to recruit new millennial drinkers.
Gillette – the razor brand has had a tough time of it lately. Men are shaving less and proudly sporting more facial hair, while direct-to-consumer brands like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club are chipping away at the classic brand’s market share. In its “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” advertising Gillette campaigns for men to be better role models.

Holland & Barrett – the health food store chain, has just launched its “Me. No. Pause” campaign. The retailer is seeking to support menopausal women. The campaign which discusses a taboo subject and talks to an “undervalued” middle-aged female audience, recently won £500k of free media in the inaugural Transport for London (TfL) diversity competition (although H&B had planned to run it anyway).

The arguments for and against

This is all fine and dandy, but perhaps the key question for marketing leaders is should my brand(s) be taking a more activist approach? Below I look at some of the arguments for and against.


  • Standing for something can build equity.  Becoming synonymous with a cause can be a more durable way to build distinct brands than relying on differences in product benefits; especially in categories where it’s difficult to be different.  Typically, more emotive advertising (versus functional) gets better diagnostics.
  • It helps teams make choices.  In complex organisations and markets, having a strong values ‘compass’ should help employees at all levels to make better, more consistent decisions.
  • Activism can be cost-effective.  If the issue resonates with the target consumer, the brand can achieve fame ‘organically’ via social media with little or no media spend.
  • It’s easier to recruit & engage talent.  A purpose beyond profit matters much more to today’s employees and in effect can be a part of the non-monetary benefits package.
  • Activism can achieve societal results.  It is highly likely that vocal global business leaders have helped create more momentum behind some issues (like sustainability) than would otherwise be the case.
  • It’s worked before.  You could argue brand activism has been around since the industrial revolution.  For example, much of the UK confectionery business has its roots in Quakerism (Cadbury of Birmingham, Rowntree’s of York, and Fry’s of Bristol) and long before social housing and the welfare state existed they were pioneering improvements in living and working conditions for communities.


  • You must make choices.  If you talk about brand purpose in marketing communications, then you don’t talk about your product or service (as much).  The more single-minded the marketing message, the more effective it will be.
  • Financially unproven.  Studies used to show purpose as being ‘inseparable’ with profits (e.g. the 10-year Stengel 50 study) are controversial, chiefly because correlation doesn’t prove causality (e.g. firms tend to champion purpose with brands that already receive greater investment).
  • Consumer importance over-stated.  It’s easy to find stats suggesting that consumers like brands that align with their values and will boycott brands that don’t, but these are nearly always ‘claimed’ in research.  Most FMCG purchases are nonconscious, so does activism really change behaviour in the store aisle or online?
  • Inauthenticity.  There are some well-publicised failed attempts to champion causes (Starbucks on race relations) where they’ve come across as superficial or perhaps only spuriously related to the brand. Recently Dutch historian Rutger Bregman became an unlikely poster boy.  He caused a storm at Davos by challenging what he sees as the collective “hypocritical hand-wringing” of CEOs who wax lyrical about societal problems but pay little or no corporate tax.
  • Inviting scrutiny.  Public and regulatory scrutiny of companies is a good thing.  But making a stand in one area invites scrutiny in others.  For example, is a brand’s social activism undermined if its owners off shore profits and indirectly make less money available for state-funded social provision?
  • Lazy marketing?  Behavioural scientist Richard Shotton asks if our current obsession with purpose/activism is because we’ve simply fallen out of love with marketing and are ignoring the core tenets of the trade.  Brand activism is just one tool in the marketer’s toolkit.

Triple bottom-line


One brand doing it well is Rowse honey. Under the banner of “Hives for Lives” this leading spread brand has been working for several years to increase the bee population through sponsorship of bee-keeping programmes and scientific research.

It’s easy to see how the brand is driving the so-called triple bottom line – where the interests of people, plant and profit coincide. What’s more it just makes sense and is a far-cry from the fuzzy or contrived stances of some other brands.

  • People – Rowse creates apprenticeships for school leavers, providing a route to employment and the programme also has a positive impact on its employees’ motivation.
  • Planet – the decline of bee populations and the associated threat to nature is now well-documented, their decline is a key ecological issue which the firm is tackling.
  • Profit – strengthening the honey supply chain has an obvious commercial value to the UK’s largest purchaser of the raw material.

The decision whether – or perhaps more importantly, how – to use ‘brand activism’ is an individual one. Leaders need to ask themselves –

  • Which consumers, and how many, will care about our activism?  What are the risks of alienating others?
  • Will our commitment to a cause be credible and real?
  • Does it make financial sense – will consumers care enough to pay more for our brand?
  • Do we have the right governance & leadership support in place to make this work?
  • Does this matter to our workforce? Will it improve engagement?
The case for more substance
The way in which brand activism is presented in the business and marketing media often reads like an activation approach to me – one that needs to be considered against the business’ goals and alongside other activation options.
I think there’s something more substantial and noteworthy going on. Our expectations of business are evolving. In future what will really matter is the impact the whole enterprise makes – over the long term and on multiple stakeholders.
For example, growing numbers of for-profit companies are applying for B-Corp status. These commercial firms aim to create benefits for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Members subscribe to the philosophy of “a global economy that uses business as a force for good” and their performance is assessed in the areas of governance, workers, community and environment. 60 countries already have B-Corp accredited firms, in food and beverage these include Ella’s Kitchen, Rebbl, Able & Cole, Café Direct, Innocent, Danone Canada and Ben & Jerry’s.

Well-conceived and authentic brand activism is right for some brands. But, making a holistic and enduring commitment to improve the enterprise’s social & environmental impact is surely more helpful to stakeholders in the long run. The problem with that approach of course, is that it doesn’t feel as new, grab headlines or sell many books.

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