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Good at doing good: How brands need to be better at activism

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There’s no denying it, activism is hot right now

From the #BlackLivesMatter movement and 2016 Women’s Marches to #MeToo and the subsequent, #TimesUp, we’ve never been more ‘woke’ to the racism, sexism and inequality in our society – and the complications that come with them. It’s a minefield out there, and careless brands may well find themselves blown up.

We saw this last year when Pepsi released an advert that had the industry, and the world, asking, ‘What were they thinking?’ But more on that later. Gone are the days when brands defined customers. Now the tables have turned and brands everywhere are looking for a purpose that makes them relevant in the cultural zeitgeist. As the line blurs between the personal and political, more and more brands are getting in on the action. We’re living in an era where Barcalys sponsors Pride and Femvertising has its own awards ceremony.

Activism offers brands a great opportunity to do more than just sell. But when a brand treats social movements as trends instead of complex narratives that stem from oppression and injustice, they’re missing the point (and causing offence.) So how can brands get better at doing good?

Beware the bandwagon

Before choosing to align with a social cause, brands need to think about how it fits into their overall identity. To successfully adopt a cause, a brand must put it at the heart of their values, make it part of their identity and have something important to say. Otherwise the results are almost always a hollow case of jumping on the bandwagon.

Outdoor clothing brand, Patagonia, has a long-standing history of supporting environmentalism – a great fit for both the brand and its customer demographic. Most recently, they responded to President Trump’s decision to shrink two major national monuments by replacing their website with the stark, monochrome message ‘The President Stole Your Land’ before launching several lawsuits to fight the action. Using their authentic activist voice, they created microsites dedicated to the national monuments to educate people about why these lands are so important and what they can do to help.

Dior and the #(wo)manifesto

On the other hand, we have Dior’s latest collaboration with Cara Delevigne to promote their new preventative anti-aging skincare range ‘Capture Youth’. In a series of short videos, each beginning with the activist-style hashtag #(wo)manifesto, we see 25-year-old, angel-faced Delevigne tell us ‘the time is now’ and that she ‘is a woman…and nobody can do it like we can.’

It’s not a stretch to position Delevigne in an activist narrative; she’s an outspoken feminist, awake to social causes and bravely shared her own #MeToo experience. But against the backdrop of high fashion house, Dior, pushing beauty products that compel women to ‘stay young for longer’, it feels incongruous. There’s an audience and a market for smart, innovative skincare, but it has little to do with movements attempting to break stereotypes of how a woman has to be or look. The result is a strange backhanded compliment; nobody can do it like a woman can, but God forbid she gets old.

Engage with the right people – and listen

If you’re going to participate in a cause or movement, it seems obvious that you need to be speaking to the people shaping it. Just one market research session with anyone involved in protests and activism could have told Pepsi that their advert concept was tone-deaf. Against the violent backdrop of #BlackLivesMatter, inferring that a can of pop and pretty, white girl can bring about peace shows poor judgement.

Stories not selling

Customer engagement starts with brands putting people at the heart of what they do. Activist movements hold powerful stories, but they do not belong to the brands, they belong to people. So brands need to start consulting them, listening to their stories or better still, making them a part of it.

Take Dove’s 2016 Real Beauty Sketches, for example. In one short film, ‘You’re more beautiful than you think’, Dove cleverly show a series of real women how self-acceptance starts from within, by comparing their opinion of their own beauty with that of a stranger. Even the latest instalment of the ‘Made of More’ campaign from Guinness utilises the power of real people. The ‘Compton Cowboys’ is an inspiring story that confronts the stereotypes around gang culture and young, black men in Southern California. These adverts have little to do with products or even the brands themselves, instead they sell us an organic authenticity. They inspire us, they challenge our perceptions and they make us feel good about ourselves – and by association, they make us feel good about the brand.  

It’s all about authenticity

Modern customers have no time for brands that talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk. After all, they’re not just after cool stuff anymore. Research shows that both Millennials and Gen Z favour brands that are socially conscious and align with their own personal views. Moreover, these generations distrust brands more than ever. The line between authenticity and cultural capitalism is a fine one, and even with the best intentions, brands can come under fire.

A lesson in integrity from Starbucks

Back in 2015, Starbucks launched their #RaceTogether campaign. Getting their baristas to write the hashtag on the side of cups in a bid to start conversations about race may seem simple enough. But for many it trivialised the issue and for others it just seemed nonsensical, coupled with campaign images that only involved white people, it felt like a hollow attempt to engage with the race issue.

Conversely, Starbucks’ pledge to hire 10,000 refugees across 75 countries was met largely with praise. In direct response to Trump’s immigration ban, it seems they’d learnt from their previous attempts and put their chosen cause at the heart of how they run their business. The response was divided. For those customers who shared the belief, it fuelled stronger relationships. Those that didn’t called for a boycott – one that put a significant dent in their profits. But Starbucks put their money where their mouth is and showed real integrity – a move that could pay off in the long term.

It’s time to be braver

In truth, there are few brands out there that are acing activism. Social movements by nature are divisive, but a half-baked attempt to try and please everyone will please no one. Activism isn’t a trend to cash in on – Pepsi and Dior, take note. Nor is it something to do for the sake of it. If brands are going to be true activists, they need to be braver. They need to be brave enough to take a side – even if it alienates some of their customers. They need to be brave enough to make it part of how their business operates – even if it means a little less profit. Most importantly, they need to be ready to fail, learn and do better next time.

Bravery builds brands

A great example of a brand being brave enough to give back is McDonald’s. Every year, they hold ‘McHappy Day’, where they donate proceeds from the sales of Big Macs to aid children with cancer. However this year, their main competitor Burger King up the stakes. Taking its flagship product, the Whopper, off the menu of its 109 Argentinian restaurants, customers were told to go to McDonald’s instead. The result was the highest ‘McHappy Day’ burger sales to date. Burger King demonstrated its confidence and empathy to a wide audience, and were brave enough to sacrifice a bit of profit for a worthy cause. What they lost in Whopper sales, they made back ten-fold in brand perception and integrity.

Make it meaningful – or leave it alone

Brands have a huge platform – and voice – that can make a difference and bring about real change when they use it for something good as well as profitable. Your customers aren’t going to forget you’re trying to sell them something. But acting with integrity and giving back may be the tipping point for a customer choosing your brand over another. 

Intelligent, well-informed and meaningful engagement with activism and social movements can be a big win for brands, customers and their shared causes. When it’s done authentically and made a priority, the results are powerful. Equally, there are a million other ways to be relevant to customers. If your brand doesn’t have anything effective to say, don’t join the conversation.

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By Philippa Todhunter - April 3rd, 2018.

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