Recently Nike hired American football player and racial injustice protestor Colin Kaepernick for an advertising campaign; outdoor clothing company Patagonia is also campaigning to restore America’s greatest salmon river. Moreover, there are many other companies that have choosen to line up with a cause. Here, two key thinkers from the marketing world tell us why the trend is happening and how companies can benefit from getting involved.
Why brand activism is on the rise
By Sean Pillot de Chenecey, insight and strategy consultant
Nike's recent ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who hasn’t played for nearly two years since kneeling during the pre-match national anthem as a protest against police violence against ethnic minorities, has a clear message: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
It is an example of what's being called “brand activism” and has sparked a massive media response despite suggestions that it could cost Nike sales among consumers who don’t share Kaepernick's views. According to a 2017 report, Meaningful Brands, by communications and marketing group Havas, 75 per cent of the world's consumers expect brands to make more of a contribution to our quality of life, yet that same report showed that only 40 per cent believe this is really happening.
Such consumer scepticism is being fuelled by today's climate of growing distrust in technology companies such as Facebook, increased access to information online and the turbulent mood of modern politics, where facts are increasingly elusive and emotions run high.
In this “post-truth” world, then, it is vital for businesses to examine their behaviour and secure people's trust – the basis of all brand values. Any attempt at brand activism has to reflect genuinely-held beliefs by the company on an issue that is relevant to the brand because people will be quick to spot a false association. It makes little sense for a dairy brand to campaign against police violence, for example, but it could make sense for it to support animal welfare – provided it’s own record on animal welfare was strong enough. Brand activism might feel challenging but get it right and the reward is to build an emotional connection with consumers that will help retain them as customers.
Nike’s campaign is a high-profile example of how brands are trying to differentiate themselves by communicating a clear message. Its recent campaign is about belief in the individual, something we've seen throughout the company's history of association with sporting activities. For other companies it might be about sustainability, stemming from their efforts to control their environmental footprint.
Whatever the cause, the approach must be holistic – because make no mistake, organisations and brands that want to earn and keep our trust have to walk the walk. Just running an advertising campaign that effectively states “this brand has a soul” isn’t good enough. This isn’t a marketing issue; it is a business-wide issue.
A wonderful example is TOMS. Blake Mycoskie founded his shoe company in 2006 with a mission to use business to improve lives. He made a commitment to give away a pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair he sold.
This “one-for-one” model has been hugely successful and copied by a host of other brands. TOMS Shoes has provided more than 60 million pairs of shoes to children since 2006, while TOMS Eyewear has restored sight to over 400,000 people since extending its “one for one” business model to glasses in 2011.
The company became so successful that Mycoskie became somewhat disenchanted and took a sabbatical to do some soul-searching. He realised that the company had become more focused on process than purpose, and returned to the business with a commitment to make the company a movement once more.
In summary, the basic pillars of a brand must be authenticity, transparency, credibility, respect for privacy and empathy. Brands will have to be increasingly bold in their efforts to engage ever-more demanding consumers. Neutrality is no longer possible. As with Nike's mould-breaking ad campaign, we can expect more brands to align themselves with the people and causes that are meaningful to consumers and boost their sense of wellbeing.
How to make brand activism work
By Gareth Kay, creative strategist
Brands increasingly are an idea that consumers buy into – rather than simply the producers of a product or service they buy – and similarly people increasingly are expecting brands to have a point of view about what they stand for and their role in the world around us.
What you believe in as a brand can be a source of real competitive advantage because it can resonate with consumers and help to foster a more emotional – and hence longer-lasting – connection. It's no surprise that brand activism is now becoming an important business strategy.
In theory, brand activism is simple. It is about understanding your soul, your DNA, and being true to it rather than messaging why you exist or making unsubstantiated claims. Choosing an issue to back, which may be seen as cynical or exploitative, will fail. Every brand has a founder's story, but far too often it's been forgotten. So find your founder's story and re-express it.
A fantastic example of a founder who believes strongly that companies should stand for something is David Hieatt. He started Howies, a clothing brand designed to make people think about the world around them – from the use of materials to minimising electricity use. Howies had a shop on Carnaby Street, London, where byelaws meant the lights had to be on 24 hours a day. Hieatt ingeniously got round this by placing a button on the outside of the store telling people to push it if they felt they needed the lights on, for a short period of time, at night.
Next he founded Hiut Denim in Cardigan, a Welsh town that had the largest jeans factory in the UK until it closed when production moved to Morocco to cut costs. He has re-employed some of the skilled workers – or “grand masters”, as he calls them – and is determined to expand. With social media so important and consumers demanding greater honesty and transparency, smaller manufacturers can now tell their compelling stories.
Yvon Chouinard, similarly, founded the brand Patagonia on a clear mission, “to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. Today, it offers financial backing to more than 1,000 grassroots environmental groups around the world.
When the brand launched an ad with the line “Don't buy this jacket”, consumers believed it was an honest demand to rethink their material needs rather than a cheap stunt to stand out. Patagonia encourages people to support its Common Threads Initiative, a scheme that asks people to buy only what they need, repair what needs mending and reuse or recycle everything else.
Patagonia has earned the right to be vocal about environmental issues. In March, the brand launched its Save the Blue Heart campaign, focused on preserving the pristine beauty of the Balkan river network in Eastern Europe. The brand is not hijacking an issue to impress. Environmental protection is an integral part of what Patagonia stands for.
If a company truly believes in something, then brand activism is effective when that point of view runs throughout the company. Increasingly as marketing departments are separated from other departments, what's needed is a brand activism-focused executive who is entrepreneurial and can drive real change through the business. At Unilever, for example, chief executive Paul Polman has made profound changes to the company’s supply chain in a bid to make its brands more sustainable.
Brand activism, however, backfires if it does not come across as genuine and part of the company's DNA. And sadly, humility and self-awareness are in short supply at many companies today.
Take Pepsi. It launched an advertising campaign that showed Kendall Jenner, youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner family, leaving a modelling assignment to join a crowd of young and diverse protestors who cheer when she hands a can of Pepsi to a policeman. Social media erupted in disdain. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, tweeted a photo of her father being accosted by a policeman. The campaign was pulled.
The lesson: Don't fake it.