Over the past few years, there’s been a significant shift in brands’ willingness to take on larger, global issues—regardless of what they sell—to influence change. Standing up for an issue is no longer a risk but can be a positive trait for many consumers if approached correctly. A 2021 Business and Social Justice Report from Porter Novelli found 66 percent of Americans believe companies have a role to play in addressing social justice issues, and 59 percent say it isn’t acceptable for companies to be silent. As a result, many companies are adopting or seriously considering marketing activism.
If this is something your organization is exploring, let’s first address some misconceptions and frequent questions about marketing activism. To begin with, it’s not synonymous with marketing advocacy. Marketing activism directly reaches consumers with its messages and efforts, while advocacy works through the legislative process. It’s not about telling consumers what to do but instead supporting movements that are already happening.
Marketing activism is also different from cause marketing, where an organization might donate some of its proceeds to a charity that all consumers would support. It’s typically a greater ongoing effort that’s connected with the organization’s brand vision.
Even within this definition, there’s a broad spectrum of actions companies can take. While some organizations make activism a central and unignorable part of their brand or choose to pursue becoming a certified B Corporation, it can also be a path that organizations gradually pursue.
With an understanding of what marketing activism truly means, organizations can decide if it’s the right approach for them and begin down that path. Getting started doesn’t need to be complicated but requires three key steps — aligning your mission, vision, and values, establishing a consistent strategy, and putting the vision into action.
Step One: Align your Mission, Vision and Values
The most important step when deciding to become more activist-oriented is to take a close look at your organization’s mission. To be a brand that practices authentic activism, it is important that the organization’s mission be a guiding light for that activism. Take, for example, Patagonia. Their mission? “We’re In Business To Save Our Home Planet.” This mission statement doesn’t address what their products are or what they do for their business, but it clearly shows what they care about and their raison d’être. From that flows their vision and values. The mission of the organization should reflect and support the activism the brand will engage in. Examine your organization’s mission. Does it truly reflect the raison d’être of your brand? If it doesn’t, this is where to start. If it does, do the actions of the brand live up to that mission?
Today, when both employees and customers are looking for brands to do more and be more, having a mission, vision and values that align will provide the foundation for truly authentic activism. And remember that just as with any marketing, a company can’t be all things to all people. Using your organization’s mission, vision, and values to help guide the movements and causes your brand will support and elevate will allow the organization to move forward with a focused approach.
Step Two: Establish a Plan to Ensure Authenticity
With a mission, vision and values aligned, it’s crucial to establish a plan for execution. Inconsistency, slow response, and lack of awareness can all deteriorate brand credibility and trust, turning marketing activism into a negative for the organization at large. This means preparing language and comments for unexpected events that could require a response, thinking through how major issues and causes connect to the organization’s core values before they arise, and establishing frequent and consistent communication.
Considerations need to include the entire organization, especially the communications department. If those responsible for social media, for example, are overlooked, lack of message consistency can confuse stakeholders and limit trust. However, if done right, areas like social media can amplify an organization’s efforts. Activism should cover all channels—earned media, advertising, social media, email marketing, sales and more.
This plan should be designed for the long term. A regular cadence of activity will reinforce authenticity—consumers won’t look back and find one comment on an issue once, but should ultimately see consistent, long-term interest in an issue. Brands should commit to keeping the conversations going, even outside of major flashpoints.
Brands including Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics and Chick-fil-A provide living examples of organizations that use their “principles” to drive their activism – not for the moment, but in the long-term. At the same time, each of these brands has run into challenges and been called out by consumers and others when they deviate from their mission or when they do not take actions that their consumer base feels they should. Being an activist brand means being held accountable by your customers. Each brand must be ready to respond, educate, communicate, and potentially evolve, or not, based on the feedback they receive from their customers. In some cases, the brand may decide to stand firm, such as Ben and Jerry’s, with their decision to end sales of their ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory or to evolve their approach to giving as Check-fil-A has done.
Step Three: Get Moving
Putting the plan into action can be an intimidating step, but it can start small. Guided by organizational values, choosing efforts and organizations to support at a local, community-level is a wonderful way to begin, ensuring the time or resources an organization dedicates to a cause are felt and make a visible impact. Authentic relationships developed through community-level support for a cause can roll into more extensive efforts, backed by real action.
At a local level, organizations can support community activities that align with their mission. This is especially helpful for smaller businesses with fewer resources. Larger organizations with more resources can take a page from Lush Cosmetics and turn to their employees for ideas on who to support and why or look to Ben and Jerry’s for inspiration in supporting existing movements through on-the-ground training and education efforts.
Once backed by action, brands can confidently communicate their passion and expand their reach. Over time, consistent messages supported by action and ongoing engagement across all channels will build a strong reputation not only for quality products or services but for the values and causes that align with a company’s mission, vision, and values.
More than ever before, what an organization stands for matters to consumers and employees. Marketing activism can be as elaborate or simple as desired, but it should always be authentic to organizational identity. With this in mind, a brand can take full advantage of marketing activism to both amplify support for the causes they care about deeply and to strengthen ties with critical consumers and stakeholders.
The author, Dr. Elaine Young, is professor of digital marketing and lead faculty member for the marketing and communication program at Champlain College Online.