Brand Activism: The Rise of Politically Conscious Brands


Written By: Written By: Rebecca Pike & Steven Son - Our BAMM Academicians visiting from JWT


Are brands blurring lines between their commercial and societal roles? Can’t brands help but become politically conscious? Our latest BAMM Academy planners, Steven Son and Rebecca Pike visit us from JWT and share with us their view on our upcoming thinking piece ‘Brand Activism’, that investigates why and how brands are becoming more conscious of their impact in society and taking of a stance in its political landscape.

For a long time we were told that brands were the problem; evil conglomerates who are happy to exploit, corrupt, pollute and lie all for the name of profit. They’ve wreaked havoc in the world around them and inspired widespread distrust amongst consumers.

It’s certainly true that the sheer scale and scope of businesses today mean that their impact on society is inevitable. In 2016, McDonald’s restaurants were found in 120 countries and territories around the world, served 68 million customers each day and employed more than 375,000 people.

And they’re not alone. We live in a world where brands have the power and resources that not even national governments have. But what if they levied their scale and influence for more noble purposes than profit alone? What if they started become some of the world’s most powerful forces of good?

It is from this more enlightened starting point that has led to the explosion of brand activism or ‘purpose’ led marketing.

McDonalds still in the wrong side of activism

Take American Pharma giant, CVS: A brand no stranger to the consumer cynicism and mistrust. CVS Health operates over 9,600 pharmacy stores across the US. Since 2014, CVS Health has helping to create the first smoke-free generation in America’s history. They started by removing all their nicotine products in its stores (a move estimated to cost USD 2 billion in annual revenue), continued by partnering with leading anti-tobacco and youth organisations on anti-smoking programs, and provide smoking cessation schemes in-store.

So what exactly is happening here? CVS identified a problem that it was uniquely well-placed to solve, and levied their resources and expertise to find a solution. They even sacrificed self-gain in the process. General merchandise sales fell 5% in 2015 thanks to the decision to ban nicotine products.

But (and there’s always a but), the positive attention generated also increased pharmacy services revenues by 13.5%.

CVS’s CEO Larry Merlo: When activism improves health and wealth

Does the end justify the means? Or does is this realisation enough to inspire renewed, more ardent disgust. Perhaps the anti-smoking endeavours of CVS imply brands are more corrupt and deceitful than ever before, exploiting sensitive issues and indulging in ethical debates in a vain and gratuitous attempts to raise profits?

In many cases those criticisms do ring true. The explosion of brand activism in recent years has brought with it a shameful posturing at social good. In so many cases now, brand activism feels like an empty charade with little good will behind. Take Pepsi, for example. Their decision to involve themselves in a social and ethical issue that lay beyond their legitimate sphere of influence or reasonable area of authority felt gratuitous, a fool-hardy. An exploitative attempt to encourage unsuspecting millennials to shower the brand with loyalty and love, and empty their pockets along the way.

Pepsi wishes it had not shared that can.

For us, however, the issue amounts to something altogether more nuanced. There are those brands who have a higher environmental, ethical and social standards deeply baked into their business models and practices. Brands like The Body Shop or Tom’s. They may be using brand activism to pursue profits, but at least they are doing so in a way that feels consistent, legitimate, and authentic.

Ultimately, then, it only works when it all works. Brand activism, if deployed, must be a manifestation of the brand’s entire behaviour and reason to exist. And of course the onus is on people, on us. Before we demand that brands to take active leadership in social issues, we must give more reasons for brands to think that investing in rebuilding their brand for the better is worth the cost.

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