Brand Activism Done Right

Brand Activism: When and How to Do It the Right Way

June 24, 2020
Julie Ramirez

Should brands take a stance on social issues? Research and campaign results reveal that the answer is yes, but only, and only if brands are being authentic about it.

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sparked protest around the world demanding justice and addressing the prevalence of racism in our society.

These events prompted several brands, including those who are usually silent about social issues, to step into the conversation and showing solidarity in different ways. Big brands like Nike, Disney and Amazon created some ads right away. Companies across industries and different sizes shared their statements of support via social media and some even donated to relevant organizations. But, how many of these brands showed support to this cause before these recent protest?

People quickly noticed the lack of authenticity from some brands and called them out for commercializing on these tragedies. Were some of these brands just being “forced” to jump into the bandwagon for fear of being seen as a racist brand? Probably. Were some of these brands authentic about their interest in helping the cause. Probably.

So, when and how should brands take a stance on social movements like Black Lives Matter?

To answer that question we need to take a look at what brand activism is and its origin.

What is brand activism?

Brand activism is basically every effort a brand puts towards promoting social, political, economic and/or environmental changes in our society.

Phillip Kotler and Christian Sarkar illustrated this definition in the following diagram:


By looking at this diagram we can see that brand activism can be regressive or progressive. One example of regressive activism is the tobacco industry that for so many years denied the negative health effects their products caused to consumers, even when their own research revealed the opposite.

The origin and evolution of brand activism

Believe it or not, we could go back all the way to the 1800s to find the origin of brand activism. That’s when industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller would donate large portions of their wealth to education and scientific research. We know this practice nowadays as philanthropy. Fast forward to the 1950’s when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs started to be more common and companies started using CSR to give back to society while boosting their own reputation.  

Interesting fact: In 1971, the concept of the ‘social contract’ between businesses and society was introduced by the Committee for Economic Development. This contract brought forward the idea that companies function and exist because of public consent and, therefore, there is an obligation to contribute to the needs of society.

CSR divided marketing efforts into marketing-driven initiatives and corporate-driven initiatives. In comparison, brand activism focuses on values-driven initiatives.


Brand activism is driven by authentic care for the biggest and most urgent problems facing society. As a “values-driven” company you can’t ignore your employees, your customers and the communities you work in. The proof is in what you do, not what you say.

Some pioneers in brand activism:

One of the first companies to communicate its values and beliefs in their messaging was The Body Shop. They communicated how they not only focused on creating high quality skin care lotions but also care for “animal rights,” “civil rights,” “fair trade,” and “environmental protection. Many Body Shop clients supported the brand because of it.

Ben & Jerry’s was also one of the first companies to place their social mission in equal importance to its product and economic missions. Since 1988, this brand has supported issues like: climate justice, LGBT Equality, Fairtrade and more. Ben & Jerry’s has shown support for Black Lives Matter and opposition to systemic racism for many years.

Evaluating cause marketing :

Alright, so now let’s take a look at a few examples of brands who have weighed in social causes through their marketing campaign in the last few years in a positive way.

Yoplait’s “Mom On” campaign - 2017

The yogurt company, launched this campaign to empower moms and shed light on the fact that mothers get judged so much, from breastfeeding in public to what kind of food they are supposed to feed their children.

Did it work? Yes. For Yoplait, the decision to take on this parenting issue proved worthwhile, ultimately helping the brand to connect with a core audience of mothers of all kinds. According to analysis from Google, the ads resulted in a 1,461% increase in brand interest.

Why it worked. The purpose of this message goes hand in hand with the brand. Yoplait has done a good job at developing a company culture and creating an authentic connection with female roles and especially for supporting moms to get the job done.

Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign with Colin Kaepernick - 2017

This one is a controversial one, but I had to include it in this list. Nike released an ad and a series of social media posts featuring the former NFL quarterback and the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” Nike did this in an attempt to support Kaepernick’s kneeling protests against racial injustice.

Did it work? Yes and no. Some people applauded the campaign while others disapproved and even started a boycott against Nike by burning their shoes. Despite the blowback, the company’s stocks rose by 5% in the weeks following the ad release, $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales. But beyond profit, there are a few aspects Nike can do better beyond taking a stand in solely through their ads.

What worked  and what Nike needs to do better. Let’s start with the positives. Nike has a great creative team able to make us feel inspired with their ads. They have consistently position themselves as an activist brand. Just take a look at their first “Just Do It” commercial where they addressed ageism, or this 1995 ad featuring the openly gay and HIV-positive runner Ric Munoz, or my personal favorite Dream Crazier addressing gender roles. And as Nike’s founder Phil Knight said:  “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it and as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked”.

All that being said, Nike needs to do more than just create inspiring ads in order for people to see they authentically stand for something. How come Nike hasn’t hired Kaepernick again for another campaign? What about being better to female athletes like Allyson Felix, who was forced to leave the brand over its pregnancy policy? Additionally, Nike has not committed to eliminating hazardous chemicals from their supply chain or improving the conditions for international labor of their production outsourcing.

Patagonia’s “Facing Extinction” campaign - 2019

Patagonia created a campaign to raise awareness for Climate Week. The campaign featured activists from around the world addressing Congress. Additionally, Patagonia decided to close its doors for a few hours so its employees can march alongside young activists in the Global Climate Strike in 2019.

Did it work? Yes. Recent data, shows that 90% millennials, who control the future of the market─ will purchase from a brand that applies effective environmental and social practices and that 95% of them will recommend that brand to a friend. Considering that this demographic group spends around $600 billion per year, those numbers have a huge significance for companies. In that same study Millennials named Patagonia, Tesla, Whole Foods, and The Honest Company, all of which have environmental and social practices by the way, as some of their most-trusted brands.

Why it worked. Patagonia’s clothing is inseparable from its environmental advocacy and people recognize that. Everything they do from production to advertising, and every business decision is rooted in a love of nature. In 2011, they even ran a campaign called “Don’t Buy This Jacket” to encourage their customers to reuse and recycle their clothing. That year, the company saw its revenue grow about 30%. Everything goes back to being authentic to your cause.  

Research shows audiences want brands to take a stand:

Several studies, research and polls reinforce the idea of cause marketing and overall brand activism as a positive move for companies; mostly if brands are looking to attract millennials who will have the most spending power in the next decade. Here are a few of the most significant stats from the last 12 months:

  • Two out of Three young consumers (66%) say that a brand’s association with a social cause positively influences their overall impression of the brand. Moreover, 58% say this association will affect their likelihood of purchasing that brand. Source: DoSomething Strategic
  • 30 percent of U.S. adult consumers are willing to pay more for a product based on the brand’s corporate values and how those values align to their own. Source: ChiefMarketer
  • The number of consumers who say they would switch from one brand to another if the other brand were associated with a good cause has climbed to 87%. Source: Entrepreneur.
  • 55% of consumers believe brands actually have a more important role than our governments to create a better future. Source: AdWeek

How to support a cause the right way:

Alright, so you know the importance of supporting your community and/or causes that your audience cares about. So how do you become a values-driven company the right way. Here are four elements to take into consideration.

Be authentic. Do you really care about this cause?

Do not fall into the trap of choosing a cause just because it’s trending or because other companies are doing it. Trying to support a cause just because you feel  you “have to” can have the opposite effect: Like Mastercard’s World Cup Children’s meals campaign, or BrewDog’s campaign for International Women’s Day. And of course we all remember Pepsi’s tone-deaf commercial with Kendall Jenner supporting the BLM movement. Choose an issue that authentically resonates with your brand and that is actually related to your core business proposition. What matters most to you, your team and your customers?  You’ll work to make a difference when your motivation is authentic.  After all, you don’t want to sound and act just like this SNL Cheetos parody.

Expand your “giving back” definition. Become a real ally.

Writing a one-time check to one or two organizations is not enough. Consider creating partnerships or affiliations where you regularly support a cause, not only by donating but by helping educate and create awareness about the cause. Maybe you can also donate services and volunteering time from your employees. Partnering with a non-profit or specific cause as a semi-permanent part of your business will help to actually create a long-lasting impact.

Understand the values and drivers of your customers

What factors drive your customers to advocate or buy from one brand over another? Understanding this is crucial. For example, CVS discovered that 34% of CVS customers prefer doing business with companies that have truthful ads. CVSthen used this insight and launched an initiative called “Beauty Unaltered,” in which the company plans to identify beauty advertisements found in its stores that have been digitally altered. In a statement CVS said: “We believe we have an opportunity, and responsibility, to think about the messages we send to our customers and how they impact their health.” This is the intersection of personal values and brand values, authenticity and action.

Change your ways from the inside out.

What you do is more important than what you say. And the practices you use to run your business are as important as what you give out to help a cause. Creating and communicating your social mission is a great first step, but you have to make sure you are reflecting your mission in the way you treat your employees, your day-to-day operation practices. Every decision you make, should be tied to achieve your mission standard.

To illustrate this last point check out the campaign Pull Up Or Shut Up, and initiative by Uoma Beauty where founder Sharon Chuter asks brands that have made a public statement in support of the Black community in the past few weeks to reveal how many Black people are on their team and in leadership positions. Below is an example highlighting skincare brand Ursa Major, which was transparent and raw about their team demographics:

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Since our last post on IG a week ago (please take a look if you missed it), we've gone quiet so that we can listen and learn from - and be inspired by - members of the Black Community. As a next step, before updating you on the specific action steps we're taking, we feel it's important to be transparent about the make-up of our existing team and Board, so we're pulling up. Ursa Major is 100% Caucasian. We have 23 full-time folks in our office and every single one of them is white. We have a five person board, and again, every one of them is white. 61% of our team identifies as a woman, 38% as a man. This may not come as a big surprise, as Vermont is one of the whitest states in the country (94% Caucasian), but this is the current makeup of our company. We believe that acknowledging these facts, and being transparent about them, is an essential first step in having a more honest and open dialogue with the Black Community (and all POC) about where we're at today and how we plan - how we will - do better. In our next post we will share an update on the specific steps we are taking as a Company to move us from complacency and inaction towards real, positive change. We can only go up from here - we have so much work to do and room to grow. Thank you all for helping to raise the bar for what it means to be a responsible company in today's world - every single person at Ursa Major is committed to addressing the glaring shortcomings noted in this (and in our previous) post. #pulluporshutup @pullupforchange

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Final thoughts:

Supporting a cause will help your message resonate with consumers on a more emotional level. However, it is crucial to have an authentic desire to move the needle and embody the cause you’re supporting. That requires hard work that begins examining your company’s DNA and making changes as needed. It’s bold territory to enter, but the risks can pay off and you’re changing the world while you’re at it. Sounds like a no brainer to me.

Julie Ramirez

Julie is a marketer expert in inbound marketing and digital strategies. She helps businesses reach their goals through her thoughtful customer-centric approach. Julie has served as marketing manager at Chicago Children's Theatre, Catharsis Productions, and The Graide Network.