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Marketing activism: 3 tips to build a purpose-driven brand

by | Jul 28, 2021 | Analysis, Public Relations

What do you think of when you hear the term marketing activism? You may think of brands sharing social justice messaging on social media platforms, changing their logo as a way to show support for events such as Pride month, or even donating money to organizations that support underrepresented groups or causes. However, marketing activism is much more than that.

At its heart, marketing activism is a practice that is rooted in both the mission and values of a brand and the desire to elevate and support social change movements. Brands that believe in marketing activism go beyond advocacy—working within the legislative process to influence the legal system—and work directly with the individuals and organizations on the front lines of changemaking.

Recent studies show a seismic shift in consumer’s perceptions and expectations of brands and social activism. Where once it was seen as detrimental for a brand to “take a stand” on an issue, the pressure is now mounting for brands to not just take a stand, but often take the lead.

Data from an early 2021 Business and Social Justice Report from Porter Novelli tell a compelling story and show that it’s not just younger generations that are looking for brands to be activists. Across generations, 66 percent of Americans believe companies have a role to play in addressing social justice issues and 59 percent say it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues. with 49 percent assuming companies that remain quiet on social justice issues don’t care. And actions matter—63 percent of individuals now say companies can no longer make a statement of support without also showing their actions to address social justice issues.

While more consumers are calling on brands to take a stand, the message for organizations isn’t to jump on the bandwagon but rather, to be authentic and transparent in their actions. To be an activist brand requires strategy, planning and alignment with mission, vision and values. It requires long-term commitment and—most importantly—listening to the communities the brand hopes to work with. An activist brand does not come into a community to tell them how it is done, rather the organization comes to the community asking, “how can we support and elevate your work?”

For organizations considering marketing activism, there are key steps for getting started. Success begins with aligning mission, vision and values with social justice and equity issues the organization wants to impact, gaining buy-in throughout the organization, and devising a long-term communication strategy centered on selected issues for continued impact.

Align mission, vision and values

Marketing activism starts with purpose. Brands should carefully examine their mission and create a strategy that connects to their overarching brand values. If unsure where to begin, a company vision statement can provide inspiration.

It also starts with acknowledging that a brand cannot be all things to all people. A brand can have greater impact if it focuses efforts in one or two primary directions. After identifying areas of focus that align with the brand’s mission, vision and values, the organization should connect with community leaders in those areas to begin exploring opportunities for meaningful impact.

Organizations can also benefit greatly by including employees in guiding the causes and movements the brand supports. Lush Cosmetics is an example of a company that chooses to engage employees in guiding their activism activities; the company regularly asks its employees about the issues they care about and how Lush can support these issues. Lush then uses that feedback to ensure the employee advice is reflected in the company’s activist efforts.

With a clear understanding of key issues to take on, brands must next decide how much of an investment they want to make in activism. For some, activism-based messaging overshadows traditional brand or product communication; for others, the role may be much smaller. Regardless of end goals, successful organizations start small and build capacity and voice over time. They listen to the advice of community leaders and organizers while beginning to shift focus to becoming an activist brand, are transparent in their process and authentic in their approach.

Gain buy-in throughout the organization

To be truly successful as an activist brand, it takes buy-in at all levels throughout the company, from senior leadership to every employee role, from finance to human resources. When activism is woven throughout the organization, employees are more likely to develop policies and seek out opportunities to contribute to the causes and social movements the brand is aligned with.

When a commitment is made to support social movements, individuals responsible for budgeting and resource allocation can align their budgets to allow for greater investment over time. The same goes for departments that include human resources, where hiring practices, internal communication and external hiring information can highlight the impact the brand is having in supporting social movements.

While not all employees at every level may align personally with an activist focus, creating opportunities for education and updating hiring practices will shift organizational culture over time. This shift will then impact the activism within the organization, driving further commitment.

Devise a long-term communication strategy

Once there is alignment and commitment the communications team needs to build a long-term communication strategy that fully integrates activism across all channels. From the organization’s website to its social media platforms to email marketing, advertising and earned media, it is important to balance chosen social movements with product sales and promotion. What matters most is consistency.

Marketing activism isn’t a part-time job. One of the easiest ways for a brand to come off as inauthentic is by deviating from determined values or being absent from relevant conversations when they evolve quickly. Missing a major opportunity for engagement or sending a dissonant message can quickly deteriorate the overall impact, anger consumers, and potentially impact sales.

Having a plan for how and when to engage in conversations, especially on social media, is critical. This may be just hours or minutes after a related incident occurs—and requires diligent monitoring and listening. Communications professionals should have a plan for any unexpected scenario that may arise.

Even more importantly, marketing activists need to focus on generating engagement as much as responding to it. Continually working to ensure a brand’s cause should remain a regular part of external communications and build trust with consumers. Maintaining this regular cadence increases authenticity when commenting on major news on a priority issue.

Ben & Jerry’s is a brand that excels at regularly incorporating key issues into its external communications. Not only does the brand’s website demonstrate how it’s contributing to the issues it supports, but the brand also provides consumers with ways in which they can get involved. Even if consumers aren’t paying attention all of the time, they will see the overall brand commitment when they look at a brand’s entire story.

Brands must remain authentic—the savvy consumer can tell when they’re not and your brand affinity will suffer

Determining alignment with social justice causes and an organization’s brand mission and values, inspiring employees, and maintaining momentum through a long-term strategy are only the first steps to help communications professionals launch activism efforts. When conducted with purpose, these approaches can build deeper relationships with consumers, strengthen a brand, and even influence a company’s bottom line while having a positive impact on the world.

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Elaine Young
Dr. Elaine Young is the lead faculty for the Champlain College Online undergraduate marketing and communication program, and works with students both online and on the school's Vermont campus. She has been a professor at Champlain since 2000, and teaches courses in a wide range of marketing disciplines, with a focus on digital marketing.

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