Brand activism is defined by a brand advertising causes or views with the intention of improving society – whether they be social, political, or otherwise. Brand activism is considered one more channel through which products can more closely build relationships with their customers. For example, Patagonia famously advertised a jacket with the phrase “Don’t Buy This Jacket”, intending viewers to consider the environmental costs of their purchases, and promoting sustainable consumption.
Brand activism should only happen if it is part of a brand’s ‘Why’ – the core belief around which the brand defines itself, and the rationale for everything a brand does. Since the rise of the newest global brand leader, the current trend is an acceleration towards more openly activist and political advertising that conveys a strong position, veering even as far as less than subtle social commentary. But a small activism-themed misstep can seriously stumble in the face of our approach to branding, which is the belief that complex and sometimes difficult information, well-delivered, can make positive and meaningful differences in people’s lives.
The recent Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner has been widely derided as one of the worst ads of all time, and it is easy to see why. The ad appears, at almost every level, insincere and inauthentic, and as a result comes across as pandering, even insulting to many of its own consumers. Culturally, it “borrows, instead of collaborating and creating something new.” The result is that this in-house effort to connect with socially progressive movements like Black Lives Matter certainly made noise, but failed to be true to the soul of the Pepsi brand. After all, consumers do not buy the brand itself: they are trusting the brand each time they buy its products. And never forget David Ogilvy’s counsel that, ultimately, like the rest of our industry, “The purpose of a commercial is not to entertain the viewer, but to sell him.”1
Positive branding based on a Why doesn’t mean “apolitical” branding, as the brand’s values are crystallized in this single statement. Millennials may feel they are more aware of social injustice than previous generations, but it’s not always appropriate to take bold stances: rather than divide, leaders should aim to unite, and that applies to brands as well as people. (Remember the impact after Lululemon’s CEO commented that their yoga pants “don’t work for certain women’s bodies”?) If brand managers know their brand’s Why, and their customers, they can decide when and how to punctuate their marketing with suitable activism. Whether a brand is venturing into new categories or new commentaries, the Why always comes first.
What do you think? How activist are your favorite brands? Leave a comment below.
1 Ogilvy, D. (1963). Confessions of an Advertising Man. Harpenden: Southbank Publishing.