Brand Activism Isn’t So Black and White

Brands need to know where they stand to avoid the gray area of social bandwagoning.

Purchasing products is no longer only a transaction, it is a political act.

Successful brands remain relevant through good times and bad and attract loyal customers, not by remaining silent, but by standing up for what they believe. By reflecting and representing their beliefs and values through a brand identity, brands enable consumers to connect with them as extensions of their own perspectives. But with recent data revealing that 55% of consumers believe brands have a more important role than our governments in creating a better future, elements seemingly outside of your brand guidelines are dictating your worth in the marketplace. And remaining silent to certain social issues may not be an option you can afford to take. In the wake of global protests over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, brands are being called to respond with brand activism. In the haste to respond to consumer demands for action—and unfortunately in some cases, “social bandwagoning” to leverage the trending nature of the cause—many brands have not only reacted in misalignment with their consumers, but with themselves. This has led consumers to question the authenticity of brand actions, and in effect, their own loyalty to the brands themselves. As your consumers continue to demand more than public statements, as the leader of your business it’s critical you acknowledge the need for your brand itself to have a foundation established in what it believes regarding activism and the causes you support in order for you to drive authentic, meaningful and impactful company actions.

How branding dictates brand activism

Brand activism is when a brand seeks to have an impact on social, economic, environmental or political issues. When done right, brand activism is built into the foundation of the brand and attached to its core values. These clearly defined values drive which causes you support and the way you support them. For brands wanting their messaging to resonate with their consumers on the emotional level, brand activism is a powerful, albeit risky, opportunity to do so. As social, economic, environmental and political issues tend to be polarizing topics, it is essential you evaluate if your brand is set up to stand with your audience, as well as kneel in opposition of those who disagree with you, before taking action.

Why your brand should consider acting

There has been a massive shift in purchasing behavior reshaping how brands conduct themselves. Buying today is a political act. Consumers look to connect with brands as an extension of their beliefs and exercise brand democracy by voting with their wallets. Led by ambitious youth consumers, the expectations are high for brands to do more than offer their products and services. According to 2019 statistics, 76% of Gen X, 84% of Millennials and 87% of Gen Z say they expect more from brands than just a product. And it’s not only the younger generations, 63% of Baby Boomers feel the same way. Purchasing a product has become an action everyone sees as an opportunity to have a voice and exercise power as a consumer.

This sentiment is being expressed more decidedly than ever in concurrence with the police brutality protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. In a survey conducted in the past week by Edelman Trust Barometer, 60% of consumers indicated that how brands respond to the protests against racial injustice will influence whether they purchase from or boycott them in the future.

Aware of this consumer behavior, many brands small and large are taking to the airwaves and voicing their support through social media platforms to condemn racism and violence. From mom and pop shops to name-brands, many are stepping up to the plate with major donations and promises to answer their consumers. Companies like Intel, Apple, and Alphabet have pledged millions of dollars in donations to nonprofits, and many others are backing their public statements with promises to actively support the cause through policy change. Other brands have posted what consumers are calling “meaningless statements” to social media, are being convicted of opportunism and are being boycotted by customers. As some brands have responded with public statements in response, consumers, discerning between genuineness and inauthenticity, have demanded action to back up promises.

One clear example of consumers exacting action from a brand is what has transpired at Nike. Quick to release a 60-second video entitled, “For Once, Don’t Do It,” calling for action against racism, Nike was bombarded with consumer demands to put their money (and actions) where their mouth was. With heavy requests for Nike to do more than post a video, within a week they announced plans to donate $40 million to organizations dedicated to supporting Black communities through education, social justice and addressing racial inequality. With 69% of U.S. consumers expressing that how a company’s CEO reacts to topics like Black Lives Matter will permanently affect their decision to buy from the company, Nike CEO, John Donahoe, avoided disaster by addressing the situation with a letter to his employees pledging commitment and declaring specific action.

How to avoid social bandwagoning

Posting is clearly not enough, and it isn’t about making a politically correct statement and throwing cash at the cause either. While there are many examples of brands being praised for their involvement, numerous brands (and their leaders) are facing severe criticism for their lack of actions or inaction in response to the BLM movement and other political issues. This comes as a result of brands acting outside of their brand identities. If the social causes a brand supports are not in line with the brand’s DNA, they will quickly be exposed for being opportunistic. In the information era where your every action is scrutinized, the very knowledgeable consumer will see straight through empty gestures and lip service.

As the leader of your business, if you haphazardly weigh in on a cause in an effort to appease your audience, you are bound to hear them and experience their voting power.

At Facebook even their own employees have noticed misaligned actions and have begun to make demands of their company. On June 1st, the social media behemoth experienced mass employee walkouts in response to its companies decisions about President Trump’s posts regarding misinformation around voting and for saying violent action would be taken against protesters. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, quickly moved to address the situation posting a nearly 1,400 word post stating support of the black community and the BLM movement. Consumers, and employees, swiftly demanded more, however, claiming his words were not enough proof of action. One former facebook employee was quoted, saying, “Mark can say he stands by the Black community, but until he shows us actual proof of this we should not be content with fluffy, PR-friendly statements.” Facebook has since pledged $10 million to groups fighting racial injustice, but continues to be chastised for improper action.

By simply acting in line with your brand before reacting with your voice, you display consistency. How Facebook, Nike and numerous other brands should have acted is to have taken actions connected to their brand identities before speaking out. But, what many companies caught in the line of fire have in common is incomplete branding poorly set up for brand activism. This insufficiency has led to the bandwagoning of social causes out of fear and opportunism. As you are asked to stand, it is critical you complete and align your own brand to stand for what it believes as you consider how your consumer is asking you to take action.

How you stand matters

Actions speak louder than words, but your actions better connect to your brand. And it’s not about which organization you support or the cause of the day that you post about, it’s about how your company behaves and operates around everything it does. To avoid being labeled as a social bandwagoner, and to build a brand that sustainably attracts loyal customers, you must act, first and foremost, in line with your own brand’s core values and principles. When you make action based on your values, customers who share your values, and the sentiments attached to world issues, will follow your brand in a much more conscious way. As an effect, everyone benefits as the brand supports causes it values, and the customer is able to feel confident the brand is actually doing something proactive.

So how do you know where your brand stands? Looking at your brand foundation, you should be able to quickly gather which causes do and do not align with your brand by inspecting your purpose, ethos and vision statements. These statements hold the key as they are the bedrock of every brand decision you have ever made. Based on your purpose—your reason for existing—and your vision for the future, you can easily decide which social causes to build into your ethos—who you are— and the model for your brand identity. Like a Bill of Rights for your company, this foundation will help you know how to navigate your brand into emerging issues (or not).

As consumers continue to value and expect brands to have a stance, and in 2020 when we have witnessed one of the most dramatic social shifts in American history, your brand will be asked to follow suit. If the majority of your audience is demanding your action, but that action doesn’t align with your brand identity, it may be time for you to take a look at your brand foundation and consider a refresh or rebrand to ensure durability and flexibility for the road ahead. We at ATOMIC D understand the sensitive nature of brand activism and recognize how easy it is to get stuck in the gray area. As experts in branding we can help you see your brand positioning with clarity and ensure you take the right actions to align with your consumers and the issues you care about. Visit www.atomicd.co to learn more or contact us at hitme@atomicd.co.

Now is the Time for a Brand Refresh! Learn more about why your brand should be considering a refresh right now, click here.

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