Why we all need more brand activism in 2021—and how to make it work


The roller-coaster ride of the last year has prompted everyone to rethink how we do business. Can corporations make a real impact beyond the pursuit of profit alone?
There’s no denying the cultural shift towards brand activism, a trend that’s growing day by day.

Last year, in the wake of rising awareness of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, many brands spoke out in support of racial equality. While some were praised for their actions—brands like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, who were quick to denounce White supremacy—others were called out for their opportunistic responses or even blatant corporate hypocrisy. People now look to brands to take on social and environmental issues, with high expectations for social responsibility and corporate accountability. Hiding behind politics and ethics is no longer an option, especially for consumer-facing brands. These days, silence is seen as negligence or condoning unjust social dynamics.

Financial incentives are a key driver for the rise in brand activism—since consumers are increasingly voting with their wallets. According to a poll conducted by Edelman, 60% of Americans overall consider support for the BLM movement as a factor in their purchasing decisions, and over 70% of millennials and Gen Zers want brands to take firm stances on important issues. Another part of this change is the ability of a brand to connect directly with its customers through social media platforms. Consumer-facing brands have added more dimensions to their brand propositions/personalities and can no longer afford to stay silent or neutral. In other words, people have higher expectations for brands to act as agents of positive change.

Consumers also expect brands to go all in on their commitment. A 2020 study showed the majority of consumers believe brands should go beyond issuing statements and making symbolic gestures to take concrete action and launch real initiatives—a figure which, once more, ranks even higher among millennials and Gen Zers.

With all this in mind, here are some ways to make brand activism more effective:

1. Change comes from within: Start with your own company culture

Internal practices and company culture often speak louder than words. Take the time to define all the important values that you wish to adopt with your company culture. And don’t underestimate the importance of employee outlook. Recent polling has shown hypocrisy and virtue-signalling around diversity and equality can hurt a brand’s reputation. 60% of consumers say brands should only speak out about such issues if they already have strong internal policies in place. More often than not, there’s a marked disconnect between a company’s posture and the actual work environment and practices—as proven by first-hand accounts from employees on social media and in the press.


2. Tread carefully: Authenticity is key

Imagine you’re a bacon brand. Would it be appropriate to participate in #MeatlessMonday? Should a fast fashion company speak out in support of cotton farmers? The answer is both yes and no. Every brand has its own unique positioning, and brand activism should come from a long-term commitment to specific causes. Any sudden statements of support can come off as insincere or jumping on the bandwagon. A good brand proposition should be relevant, engaging and inspiring. By exploring your brand proposition, you can find the narratives and connections to the social causes your brand stands for. The key? Be consistent and stay authentic in your core values.

3. Mix it up: Don’t be afraid to engage with your customers

Something as simple as communication with your customers can actually make a difference in the perception of your brand activism. Engaging with your customers means listening to and valuing their voices and opinions. This practice shows you’re willing to work together to strive for progress—rather than issuing out-of-touch statements from higher up.


4. Turn to the pros: Look to the professionals to implement changes

No brand is expected to know all the answers. By turning to the pros, your brand can develop step-by-step, achievable goals and a timeline for new initiatives. Brand activism requires high-level synergy between marketing, HR and management—meaning it could call for rethinking how things are organised. Many corporations, for example, have now brought in a Chief Diversity Officer as a sign of their commitment to achieving real equality in the workplace. A multicultural company like Datawords Group can also offer strategic insights and guidance for brands seeking to improve their standard of diversity and inclusion. So don’t hesitate to drop us a line!

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