Brand activism: a manifesto for brands in 2021

Brands are being called to account for their impact on society as power transfers from baby boomers to millenials.

There’s change afoot. 

2020, for all its faults, pain and suffering stirred an awakening within groups, movements and individuals.

I’m optimistic that it’s laid the foundations of extraordinary advances in our society.

We’ve seen the fight for equality elevated to a level of importance and clarity needed to give us all a determined chance to level the playing field. 

We’ve seen the Green New Deal enter the mainstream lexicon, and, with a new administration in the US due within days, finally, take centre stage within central politics.  

We’ve seen footballers go from heroes on the pitch to human rights icons off it.

And yet, the clock is ticking to build on the foundations laid over the last 12 months.

We have a decade to stare down some of the biggest threats to society: the climate crisis, poverty, populism and inequality. 

Misinformation is the greatest enemy to solving some of these critical issues. It continues to butt up against the flow of progress and critical thought, frustrating democratic processes, public health and responsible stewardship of our earth.

It should be the villain to any professional working in the communications world, and a united fight against it is essential.

But what can brands do? 

Brand activism: positive voice and action to create societal change

Before anything else, look inwards and implement the necessary transformation to mould a kinder, fairer society. The majority of time and energy should focus on the inward change before even the thought of a brand activism campaign, demanding external change, enters the boardroom. 

That said, brand activism will have an increasingly important role in 2021. Due for publication and peer review, research by University of Oregon PhD student Andrew Edelblum indicates that an activist message from a brand people liked, prompted them to donate 30% more had that message been delivered by a charity.

It’s clear brands can accelerate the impact of a cause. 

But before every brand rushes ahead with their new brand activism campaign idea, it’s important to note that brand activism comes at a heavy price if it’s executed poorly, without consideration to the cause or with a total misalignment to what the audience believes and understands. 

It’s not for everyone. Rather than see ethics or activism as a form of differentiation, it must flow intrinsically through the organisation, live and breathe within the business, and be communicated elegantly with the cause, not the brand, at the forefront.

Societal impact and shareholder value

Done right, brands have an enormous role in forging a new society that holds sustainability, empathy and better living in as high regard as GDP and shareholder returns. Without businesses fundamentally altering how they do business, we will not meet the goals set out in the coming ten years. 

The rewards for this change are not just societal. I am not calling for mass altruism (although a bit more of that will help). If brands get this right, they’ll see improvement on their balance sheet as well as in their community.

Brands such as Patagonia, a business that had brand activism at its heart since day one,  have shown growth and societal commitments can go hand in hand, with the outdoors clothing brand seeing sales quadruple to over $1bn in the last decade. 

But even brands not intrinsically associated with activism, such as Unilver, are seeing purpose-led products drive the majority of their business growth. 

deVere Group CEO, Nigel Green, recently outlined that “investments that score well in terms of ESG (environmental, societal, and governance), often outperform the market and have lower volatility in the long run.” A prediction that proved right in 2020 with ESG-linked stocks outperforming the market last year. 

What’s more, as the greatest transfer of wealth in human history, (around $30trn according to deVere’s) moves from baby boomers to an ESG focused millennial audience, consumer pounds will divert towards brands that take their commitment to the planet as seriously as their commitment to the stock exchange. 

We are in our most vital decade. One we hope will bring about another overhaul of the way society operates. This time the focus is on a more humane, more sustainable world. 

The stakes are high. The opportunity is huge. The result of failing is catastrophic.

We’re here to stand alongside any brand ready to roll the dice. 

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