Last year, Arefeh Ghane wrote about the industry’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement on our blog, highlighting actions and statements made by brands—some to positive and some to less than stellar effect. But was it just the Black Lives Movement itself that was the catalyst for this trend of ‘brand activism’?
Defined simply, brand activism is when brands or businesses take a stand on various salient socio-economic issues and purport to drive for change in these areas. The term is relatively new, gaining traction thanks to Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler’s 2018 book Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action.
But to say that the industry has only now adapted to integrating activism into its branding would be remiss. After all, businesses as a whole have always been evolving, just as activism itself has over the ages.
The rise of sociopolitical activism
Picture the 1960s: the world was at a turning point. Events such as the Vietnam War and Detroit Riots, though U.S.-based, heightened anti-war and anti-racist attitudes across the Western world, bringing them to the forefront. At this point, something else was also in the works: the rise of the baby boomer generation.
By the mid-60s, half of Canada’s population was under the age of 25, with a good number of these individuals either already entering the workforce or attending university. At workplaces, it was easy to harbour solidarity over workplace injustices. On campuses, progressive individuals with an awareness of global issues, especially that of the neighbouring U.S., joined movements that highlighted issues such as feminism and Indigenous rights. In this era, a youth counterculture movement was born—not something native to Canada, but happening all over the world.
American and Canadian youths, astute and retrospective, transformed into a demographic against the previous generation’s consumerism and materialism. But brands still had business to do, just a new demographic to sell to. As the world was spinning towards a new direction, so were the creatives at the helms of cultivating the images of these various brands.
It was here that traditional advertisers, piggybacking off the advances in market research, saw the value in further delineating this encompassing demographic—taking into account factors such as race, gender, and sexuality—and tapping into them as emerging markets.
Corporate involvement in progressive moments
Absolut Vodka’s long history of targeting its ads to ‘gay consumers‘ is a prime example of this. Nowadays the idea of showing solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community with rainbow-coloured products or social media logos seems commonplace. But Absolut did it at a time where the community was largely shunned, particularly in the 1980s where the AIDS epidemic added to the prejudice they already faced. They placed ads in gay magazines, supported LGBTQ+ events, charities and causes, and become a recurring sponsor on the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Vodka even became known as the ‘spirit of Pride’.
Doesn’t this pattern seem familiar? Of course, we are again in a radically different era. Print media is seeing itself out the door as digital and social media platforms have come into their reign. Perhaps today’s version of brand activism can be assumed to have started with the latter half of Millenials and continued on with Gen Z, the plugged-in individuals who push hard for backyard activism through the use of cyberspace.
Think about it: in 2018, Forbes reported that Gen Z in the U.S. alone carries US $143 billion in buying power. How can anyone afford to overlook that? But it’s not just Gen Z doing the work. Deloitte’s 2021 study across six countries found a growing number of consumers “expect businesses to adjust their practices to address the issues they take a stance on”.
Most recently, due to growing coverage and outrage in the West against cotton produced by forced Uyghur labour in Xinjiang, brands such as Nike and H&M spoke out against such practices. This was met with an incredible backlash from mainland China, where many Chinese celebrities immediately ended their endorsements and online platforms such as Tmall blocked them. While Nike and H&M have maintained their footing in the Western market, they have been virtually extirpated from mainland China.
So it would seem that brand activism comes at a cost—in asserting certain values, it is taken that you embrace certain markets and reject others, similar to rigid political alignments of democrat versus republican, or liberal versus conservative. This is something brands have to contend with as they advance into the world of activism as a form of PR.
But when we say brands we don’t just mean businesses. Even organizations such as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), churches and museums have taken to platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or TikTok for outreach.
As June is Pride Month, it’s when companies race to tint their logo in rainbow colours for a solid month before switching back again. But what does this once-a-year show of solidarity even mean? Take for example the ICE who recently made a post for Pride Month that was met with plenty of criticism, considering the many reports of their ill-treatment towards detained LGBTQ+ people.
Or consider Everlane’s announcement last year, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, that they were donating $75,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative and the ACLU each. At the same time, they were exposed by former employees for unethical ethics which included anti-Black attitudes and suppression (including layoffs) from speaking up.
How brand activism can make a positive impact
How do we gauge the sincerity behind a brand’s involvement in a social cause? Let’s be frank, it will always be in their best interest to cater to either the majority or the demographic of their interest. But that’s not to say that it’s all a hopeless game of consumerism.
We also have to look at the kind of exposure such PR actions give to previously ignored causes or amplifies the necessary voices to drown out dissidents, such as those who fought against #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter. Financial contributions can also make a huge difference for many nonprofits organizations on the frontlines.
But then again, why are some causes easily picked up while others stay on the sidelines waiting for their turn? Where are the big brands pushing for Indigenous rights and donating resources to communities in need of clean water? And what does it mean if a brand outwardly speaks for a cause but subjects its own employees to unfair practices?
To write off brands picking up on social causes entirely as PR moves would be unfair. Many actions taken by organizations are championed by employees invested in seeing the world become a more equitable place for themselves and future generations. However, we also cannot give organizations too much credit just for making a social post, statement, or one-time donation.
Not all consumers have the privilege of choice, but those that do have the power to affect change through the brands they support. Brands who end up pushed out by their competitors will then have to consider: where do they stand in this world full of crises?
As for PR professionals, there is a need to push for proactiveness; mere statements of supposed solidarity are no longer enough. Consider contributions (financial, volunteering time, or otherwise) your company can make that guarantees longevity in a time where others may simply be doing one-off actions to appear good in the heat of the moment.
Real and progressive change cannot be sustained with one-off actions. Real change needs to be supported with a long-term strategy that encompasses both internal and external communications and initiatives. And it cannot be something that appears for one whole month and then disappears for the rest of the year.
A key point of being in PR isn’t just thinking about the brand’s current image—it’s about how it will look in a future full of possibilities. This is something we have the power to nurture.