Should brands get involved in social activism?

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From #BlackLivesMatter to climate change, 2020 was the year of brand activism. Here are five things to consider before joining the fray


It was exactly a year ago that tens of thousands of outraged Australians took to smoke-filled streets to protest against climate change. But it wasn’t just individuals calling for action; brands like tech giant Atlassian to luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co. also entered the fracas.


Those protests signalled the start of an unprecedented wave of brand activism. Just a few months later, public outcry over the killing of George Floyd sparked a resurgence in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which engulfed social media. Once again, brands joined in, posting black squares and calling for action. Then, during COVID-19, campaigns like #MakeItFree, calling for universal childcare, also drew corporate backers.


There’s little doubt, says Dr Abas Mirzaei, a senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie Business School, that brand-led social activism – from calls for same-sex marriage to the #MeToo movement – is on the rise. 


“It’s definitely increasing, and more brands are trying to show their support,” he says, pointing to research that shows that 44 per cent of marketing leaders at billion-dollar brands would take a stance on politically charged issues. 


Mirzaei points to campaigns by Pepsi and Gillette as examples of social activism that backfired, adding that countless brands were also criticised during #BlackLivesMatter for posting black squares and doing little else. 


“The jury’s still out on whether brand activism helps or hinders [brands’ bottom lines],” says UNSW Business School Associate Professor Nitika Garg, who is researching consumer perceptions of brand activism. 

The jury’s still out on whether brand activism helps or hinders [brands’ bottom lines].

- Associate Professor Nitika Garg, UNSW Business School

The challenge for companies, she says, is that increasingly, “consumers expect brands to participate. They want more from brands now, especially the established ones.” 


It’s no longer enough, she adds, for brands to appoint a Corporate Social Reasonability (CSR) unit to support non-controversial issues “like, say, the environment or Breast Cancer Foundation”. 


Mirzaei agrees. “Brands used to go with ‘safe’ choices.” Now, thanks to social media, “the topic is being provided to them”.


So, how can brands navigate social activism?


Here are five things to consider before entering the arena. 


1. Ensure there is an authentic alignment

“There has to be a degree of alignment between the organisation’s core purpose, image and business and the [cause],” says Mirzaei.


That means that an outdoor clothing business like Patagonia, which offers a number of recycling and clothing-repair services, can credibly speak out over climate change. A brand selling bottled water? Not so much.


2. Make a long-term commitment 

Pick a cause and stick with it, advises Mirzaei. “You need to show continuous commitment over time, instead of, say, launching a campaign to fight toxic masculinity one month, and then after a few months launching a new campaign that has nothing to do with that.”

You need to show continuous commitment over time.

- Dr Abas Mirzaei, Macquarie Business School

3. Consider your audience 

Too often, brands support activist messages because a CEO wants to demonstrate their own principles, says Dr Garg. “But at the end of the day, any publicly traded company is accountable to its shareholders, so you have to make sure your initiatives align with your audience.”


She warns that any form of brand activism will inevitably alienate some consumers. “Brand activism is, by definition, controversial. There are people on both sides.”


Early findings from Dr Garg’s research into consumer perceptions of brand activism show that people with liberal or left-leaning views tend to think more highly of – and are willing to pay more for – brands that advocate for social change, compared to those who are more conservative. “If your segment is more left-leaning, then activism is a good route to go financially,” she says, with proxies like education levels and age also offering a guide. “We know that Millennials and Gen Z are more left-leaning than older generations,” she says.


4. Take concrete action

During #BlackLivesMatter, Mirzaei says that brands generally fell into three camps: “symbolic supporters”, who posted on social media but did little else; “brand promisers”, who pledged to do better in the future; and brands who actually changed their practices. 


He says that the “single most important factor” for any brand engaging in social activism is to take concrete action, by either changing its operations or making a financial donation. That donation should be relative to your brand’s size, he says, allaying any fears that small businesses may have over their ability to donate.“Generally, small businesses are perceived as more genuine and authentic,” he says. The key is to communicate the actions your business is taking. “So, perhaps you say, ‘I am a small brand with $2m revenue but I have invested $10k.’”


5. Anticipate questions

Before posting on social media, think carefully about the questions that consumers might ask in response. If you’re campaigning on gender equity or diversity, take a hard look at the make-up of your own business first. “You’re better off not doing anything than doing something that’s perceived as lip service or disingenuous,” points out Dr Garg. 


Anna Saunders is the former executive editor of marie claire and associate editor of British marie claire. She co-founded PRIMER, a website and content studio that operates as a social enterprise.


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