Black and while illustration of activists

Brands on the front line

We expect our favourite brands to stand on our side but – with insincerity attracting as much consumer ire as inaction – companies must react carefully to activism

Consumers view brands as a reflection of their own identities and values: this is the intended effect of branding. When a company becomes a brand, the fundamental contract between itself and consumers evolves beyond the transactional exchange of goods and services. The brand-to-consumer contract calls for brands to live and act by free-willed beliefs under the surveillance of their patrons.

When brands speak during crises, they place themselves under greater scrutiny from consumers, who look for accompanying actions. Yet any action without clarity can be self-sabotaging, resulting in social media storms, advertiser boycotts and share price falls. And just as people can detect hypocrisy in their neighbours, so they can in brands.

When actions are misaligned with brands’ historical activity, they appear insincere. The brands best prepared to speak during a crisis are those who have grown equity with communities via long-term commitments, marketing risks and dedicated products. That said, brands without a shining track record can find ways to support a movement through introspection. Before determining how they should act, brands must first understand different public views, and assess whether they should act at all. In finding the answer, each brand should consider how its historical actions, company values and existing audience align with the cause at hand.

There are four possible approaches: leader of action, elevate the community, honest self-review and pledge and lastly, pause, learn and decide.

Leader of action

For progress (not profit)

If your organisation has already contributed actively to the cause, you have probably done so for progress, not profit. However you may get pressured to correlate campaigns for the cause to business profit. It can be useful to remind internal and external stakeholders of the company’s vision, and its responsibility to serve society at large. It’s also helpful to set ground rules and draw the line between duty and profit, so you can stop opportunistic opinions and requests from the outset.

Be the catalyst

As a leader, you can help establish and reinforce a clear shared vision and plan with the community. This will help the community and its allies stay focused on making progress. Use your experience, resources and partnerships to rally new supporters around tangible actions to drive progress. Think fewer, bigger, one-step-at-a-time actions that you can get enough people behind to make an impact. In moments of activism, there will be a lot of noise and uninformed opinions. Leaders with a long-term vision and plan of action can channel momentum into sustainable progress towards change.

Lead by example

A great leader leads by example. While slogans can unite community members around a common goal, and instil emotional attachment, leaders need to go to the movement’s front line and take actions. This can include pressuring policy makers to adjust policies; investing in seismic changes to your industry or supply chain; being on the board of industry associations fighting for the cause; and partnering meaningfully with non-profit organisations.

Flow chart of hows brands should respond through times of activism

Share valuable information

There are a lot of voices, amplified by social media, during moments of activism. Some are important and helpful, others can be misleading, not to mention those arising from fake news and propaganda-carrying bots. Lend your experience and knowledge to consumers, grassroots organisations and businesses. Help trustworthy voices and resources to surface above the noise with owned and paid communications.

Elevate the community

For progress

Let’s rethink the term ‘cause marketing’. It implies that helping a cause is a marketing tactic, whose ultimate goal is to drive profit. Brands need to realise that doing the right thing is not a means to business growth. The goal of taking action is to improve society as a responsible citizen and a member of the collective community. Stop calling it cause marketing. Lift up the community you serve. Let them lead you to the right actions. Give them the spotlight, and help them realise their visions.

Be a platform

Admit that most of us don’t understand the community’s lived experiences, especially if we haven’t historically backed the cause. We are not the heroes: they live among the community, and have been delivering brilliant solutions and support for each other. Our role is to give them a platform, let their voices be heard, recognise their accomplishments and help execute their visions. Offer up tools and resources, and then get out of the way. Let the community lead.

Act to add value

In the past, when brands took a stance or aligned with marginalised communities, they got praised. That has changed. Public figures and brands who seek credit by issuing feel-good statements or featuring members of the community are now asked: “What are you doing to help?” The community is the driving force of change. By simply featuring or aligning with it, brands take credit away from what the community is doing. Instead, ask: “What new opportunities – or sustainable and long-term resources – can we bring to the community?” If it’s something the community can achieve without us, we are not adding value.

Amplify the communities voice to all

The community already knows its own excellence, stories and issues. What it needs is to have these stories told to the masses. Educating wider society will help the community get more understanding and support and break down stereotypes and biases. This should not be part of your multicultural marketing initiative. This is about influencing wider society with voices from the community. Will stories and points of view from the community resonate with the masses? Absolutely, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Honest self-review and pledge

For progress

There is no need to use paid media to amplify this particular response or role, as that would be more self-serving than supporting communities in need. (See reasons mentioned above.)

Be an explainer

Before brands jump into bold statements, they need to look at their own past behaviour and internal dynamics. While there is pressure to act quickly, it is crucial to self-examine first. And it’s OK to acknowledge that you are taking the time to do so.

Look inwards

Self-reflection can be uncomfortable, particularly in the public eye. But people prefer honesty and owning up to faults to inauthentic commitments without confession. It is worth going through uncomfortable self-reflection for the ultimate change our society needs.

Improve with action

Pledge with organisational actions, not statements or marketing messages. Plan with ongoing commitment and goals, and timetable in checks to hold key stakeholders accountable for progress.

Pause, learn and decide

For progress

Evaluate the motivations of your desire to participate in a movement. If it’s about retaining customers or seen as an opportunity to sell your service or products, and your leadership is not ready to commit to the movement without the incentive of profit, you should control the urge and not do it. At least not yet. Not taking a stand is often perceived as taking the opposite position: be prepared for the potential backlash. However, it is worse to put out an ‘optical ally’ statement that signifies talk not action.

Be a student

It’s OK to take time to learn before responding. Educate yourself and the organisation on what is at stake for the company and the communities you serve and the impact of taking, or not taking, actions. Consider views from both sides before making a decision.

Learn the why…

If your personal view conflicts with your company’s stance, try to grasp why your organisation is not ready and what the risks and barriers are internally and externally. This will help you become an effective internal advocate.

… and the how

Have candid conversations with your leaders, shareholders, outside consultants, customers and community representatives. Invite experts from both sides to share their views and stories internally. Survey customers on their expectations of your company and use their responses to fuel decisions.

Aligning actions with values

In a world where the brand-consumer relationship has become more a dialogue than a broadcast, brands must work to understand what actions best represent the values of themselves and their customers. This is especially important when consumer activism is heightened.

While brands often feel the pressure or passion to react immediately, it is crucial to consider how your historical actions, company values and audience align with the particular cause. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Proper homework is essential to ensuring whether a specific cause requires you to be a leader of action, to elevate the community, to undertake an honest self-review and pledge, or to pause, learn and decide.

Read more from Atticus Journal Volume 26

Harrison Awe, Erica Chen, Jon Gittings, Maria Hidalgo, Dhatri Navanayagam, Stephanie Rickards, Adam Russell, Joanne Suk & Chike Ume


published on

15 December 2021


The Atticus Journal Communications Experience

Related Topics

Ethical advertising

More in The Atticus Journal

Allison Spray

Generative AI: mitigating risk to unlock opportunity

H+K’s Allison Spray on managing the commercial and reputational risks that the proliferation of generative AI will present

Illustration of windmill on a backdrop of green cars

Making sustainability profitable

Sustainability investments must deliver returns – both financial and reputational – to be ‘sustainable’ for business. Something needs to change, says Luc Speisser

Sustainability comms must get real

Sustainability comms must get real

There’s a disconnect between the way corporations talk about climate change and how the public discusses the same issue. That’s the conclusion of research by Jamie Hamill, Alessia Calcabrini and Alex Kibblewhite.