#3 When should brands become activists?


14 / 01 / 2021

When is brand activism a good idea? Why does it sometimes miss the mark? And how do brands avoid empty virtue signalling or even damaging their reputation?

Nearly three quarters of consumers believe companies should do more than just offer a product or service, with 57% prepared to boycott a brand that doesn’t align with their social beliefs. With demand like this from consumers, it’s no wonder that brand activism has become a mainstream marketing strategy. More and more brands and businesses are getting political, joining or seeding movements and even calling out poor behaviour – so much so that Aline Santos, EVP Global Marketing and Chief D&I Officer at Unilever, has named 2021 as the year of the brand activist.

But when is brand activism a good idea? Why does it sometimes miss the mark? And how do brands avoid empty virtue signalling or even damaging their reputation?

In our most recent Purposing event, we discussed the power and complexities of getting brand activism right with leaders from Ben and Jerry’s, The North Face, Tony’s Chocolonely and IKEA.
Keep reading to find out what they had to say.

Our panellists included:

Alex Gligorijevic
Campaign Unit Project Manager

Julian Lings
Senior Manager, Brand Sustainability, EMEA Sustainability and Responsibility

Nicola Matthews
UKI Marketing Manager, aka Countess of Cocoa

Rebecca Baron
Head of Activism & Social Mission, Europe

If you missed the session or would like to watch the full webinar again, you can here.
We’ve also included a summary of the key insights heard during the session below.

1. Brand activism should be rooted in a clear sense of purpose and aligned to values

Purpose and values help to define ‘why’ you’re doing brand activism, ‘what’ you’re looking to tackle, and ‘how’ you’re going to do it. It provides the guardrails for credible, relevant, inspiring, and ultimately impactful action. Clarity of mission helps you to confidently take the right steps to influencing systemic change in a meaningful and impactful way.

“Purpose sets the guardrails for your unique approach to brand activism and gives permission to go after credible and relevant issues to drive systemic change.”

–Julian Lings, Senior Manager, Brand Sustainability, EMEA Sustainability and Responsibility, The North Face


2. Collaborate to create change – don’t pretend to know it all

Activism doesn’t have to be a lonely pursuit (although this was the original idea behind Tony’s Chocolonely). Partner with competitors, bring people together, listen, participate, learn and iterate. Don’t pretend to be the expert. You’re not going to know it all. Only by joining forces and collaborating for change will you have an impact

“Brand activism is an iterative exercise. You’ll constantly be learning and making mistakes. Nobody is an expert in this. There’s no cookie cutter or exact science. So don’t pretend to be the expert.”

–Alex Gligorijevic, Campaign Unit Project Manager, IKEA Group


3. Prepare for the long haul and prioritise impact

Activism is not a campaign idea. It needs to be led by a fundamental belief in change. This doesn’t always fit with standard business cycles. Businesses need to recognise the requirement for a long term plan against a big goal and sustain that energy for change throughout the organisation.

“Participating, listening, learning, understanding, being passive members of the community, are crucial first steps before credibly launching into braanndd activism. Activism becomes dangerous when you’re only in it for short term impact.”

–Alex Gligorijevic, Campaign Unit Project Manager, IKEA Group


4. Brand activism might not be right for everyone – but if it feels relevant then there are a few ways to approach it

Not everyone needs to be a brand activist. It’s okay to make a difference in a more subtle but still crucially, impactful way. If brand activism feels right for you there are a number of ways in:

  • Personal empowerment – giving people the means to educate themselves on key issues and take action themselves.
  • Building alternatives – creating a different system – outside of the one that you’re trying to change – and proving that it’s a better way of doing things.
  • Changing dominant institutionsmaking structural changes to the system and putting pressure on powerful stakeholders to keep up with change.

“Brand activism is not for everybody – but if you can find something to take on that’s really genuine and authentic, chances are you are going to make an impact.”

–Nicola Matthews, UKI Marketing Manager aka Countess of Cocoa, Tony’s Chocolonely


If you would like to discuss any of these topics further or would like to find out more please do get in touch