Political and social tensions are high in the U.S. and abroad, and people are increasingly expecting brands to use their platforms and financial power to fight for justice and fairness for all (including the planet). They also want brands to do so “authentically”.
Brands are feeling the pressure to stand up and speak out on what seems to be a daily basis. But they’ve seen so many brands do so, only to have their words/actions blow up in their face, that they’re wary of how to navigate these murky waters.
When it comes to discussions around authentic brand activism people often reference brands that are seen as leaders in the realm of corporate responsibility as guide posts. Brands such as Patagonia, Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry’s. The thing is, all of these companies were established with activism as a foundational element to their business operations. Activism is a core part of their DNA, so, in today’s political and social climate, it’s quite easy for them to react to perceived wrongs swiftly and “authentically”.
But what about all of the companies out here that don’t have activism at the core of their business or don’t have the policies or processes in place internally to back up what they wish to speak up for?
The answer isn’t simple. This is why it’s not surprising that one of the most popular questions we get from clients today is, “how do we take a stand on [insert perceived wrong here] without it backfiring or us coming off as opportunists?”
First thing’s first: in order to not be seen as an opportunist, brands who don’t have some sort of activism at the core of their operations must do more than just react to the issue du jour. If key decision-makers within your company are talking about when, where and how you take a social stance, it’s time to look at your brand’s DNA.
Your brand’s DNA should be the starting point from which it’s determined what social issue(s) your brand will stand beside and support. As you look into the brand’s DNA, identify the key values that are at the root of the company. If those are hard to identify, pull back and look at your brand from a category level and start to narrow your focus from there. Are you a toilet paper company? Environmental activism might make more sense for your brand than, say, prison reform.
Before the first brand DNA meeting is called, make sure you get the right people in the room. Identify and include key decision makers from multiple departments (i.e. administration, HR, marketing & advertising, sales, production, PR), as well as people who are ‘closer to the ground’ in departments such as sales and marketing. If possible, do your best to include a diverse group of people who can bring multiple perspectives to the table. In addition, it’s generally beneficial to have an expert outside party, such as a brand consultant or a relevant activist involved in the process to spur conversation, spark ideas, serve as mediator and play devil’s advocate.
Keep focused. While there may be a multitude of issues your brand could take on, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin.
Don’t expect to have it all figured out after the first meeting. Like anything worthwhile, solidifying your brand’s social activism lane and living into it will take time. A clear path forward isn’t going to be determined in one meeting, and it will take multiple instances where your brand has acted on behalf of the chosen cause before people will begin to associate it with authentic activism.
Develop an Implementation Plan. The real work begins once your activism lane is determined. Ask questions like:
– How can we better live into our social values internally?
– What’s our internal protocol when something surrounding our cause arises?
– How do we communicate our brand activism to the outside world without coming across as opportunists?
Come up with a list of “If, Then” scenarios, so when something arises, people within the company know how to begin to address it (i.e.: if one of our brand ambassadors speaks out on x topic, then we respond in z ways).
Don’t fall victim to navel-gazing. Because you’re likely too close to the work, and to make sure you’re not simply drinking the brand’s Kool-Aid, pressure-test your social activism approach with a broader internal team, then amongst your desired audience. This could come to life through hosting a roundtable discussion or conducting dynamic, non-traditional focus groups with a DIVERSE group of people.
Brand activism is quite a buzzword these days, and while brands are scrambling to determine where they fit in to the values-driven equation, it’s better to speak out with the risk of getting it wrong than to remain quiet with the risk of siding with ‘the oppressor’.