Corporate Activism in Marketing – Civic Responsibility or Big Gamble?


There’s no doubt that brands today leverage an amazing amount of power. Their willingness to spend big dollars for the opportunity to present the public with their messages means they eat up a lot of our impression bandwidth. We click on display ads online, watch commercials on television, listen to radio spots and more – all moments during which brands hope to catch (and hold) our attention long enough to make us think, feel and do something.

But what is the role of today’s brands in delivering activist messages? Historically, brands have steered away from the political landmine of activist marketing. Quite simply, the risk was too high, and the reward was unknown. Today though, more brands are making the leap and taking a stand on activist issues.

So, what’s driving the decision?

Younger buyers want to believe in their brands.

Today’s 35 and under target market is attracted to brands that stand for something. This market is persuaded to buy a certain type of car(because it is good for the environment), wear a particular brand of makeup(because it is vegan and cruelty-free) and buy a special brand of shoes(because they donate a pair for every pair purchased) because in doing so, they show their support for a cause. They are driven to make purchases based on a level of social desirability. To earn their loyalty, brands need to place emphasis on the cause.

Affiliations drive decisions, including purchasing behavior.

The Russian interference in the 2016 elections is a perfect example of how affiliations can drive decisions. Part of the alleged strategy employed by Russia was to create different groups – a Black Lives Matter group, an environmental group, an animal activist group, etc. When people join groups with a common interest and belief, they were more likely to be influenced by others in the group. Brands can use this natural desire to affiliate to their advantage by broadly identifying with a cause (“you care about the environment and so do we”) or hyper-targeting individuals connected to existing customers(“you and Jane both care about the environment, and Jane uses BRAND X”).

Brands feel a responsibility.

We are living in a hyper-polarized, often sensationalized,24-hour news cycle world. Corporate leaders are feeling a sense of pressure to participate, and sometimes lead, political or activist discourse. While brands and the media have always been a part in representing our changing norms (think interracial couples in commercials or Ozzie and Harriett sharing a bed), many feel a responsibility to take a more direct role in shaping and inspiringconversations.At the end of the day, does affiliating your brand with an activist cause pay off? The answer is, it depends. When we work with clients to evaluate campaign concepts,the calculation has to come down two things – how will we measure success and do we anticipate winning more than we lose. If we look at Nike’s Colin Kaepernick commercial, which resulted in a call to boycott Nike (and a five percent increase in stock value), you could say it has paid off. Gillette’s “We Believe”ad on toxic masculinity has earned more than 65.4M views but sales for Q1 inthe grooming category remain flat. If the goal is to continue or advance a cause, both have generated a significant amount of conversation and media attention. If the goal was to drive the bottom line, we’ll have to wait and see.