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The Current State of Brand Activism

The Current State of Brand Activism

How do we gauge when businesses are authentically committed to social, racial, and environmental justice — what happens when they miss the mark?

Ana Gonzalez
Ana Gonzalez

More and more, brands are choosing brand activism to stand out from their competitors. But what is brand activism and how is it affecting companies, activists, and consumers?

Brand activism is much more than Corporate Social Responsibility actions — it is where brands stand on sociopolitical issues and how they operate their business according to their values. Brand activism is the future of branding and part of a company's vision and mission statement.

A rise in customer expectations

What do we expect from the companies? Are price and quality the only reasons that make us choose a specific brand? Definitely not.

As consumers, we are now more likely to buy from a brand whose values resonate with ours and, most importantly, whose actions benefit the world. In the end, some brands have the money, the resources, and the power to change the world, don't they? Neutrality and silence are no longer an option, and brands nowadays are expected to be agents of change.

In fact, recent reports point to a growth in the customers' expectations of companies. For instance, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer results show that 92% of people consider it essential that their employers speak out on social issues.

This trend is also prominent in the youngest generations. According to a study carried out by Reach3 Insights in July 2020, 76% of Generation Z users demand that brands promote social movements and change worldwide.

WeAct graphics stating 92% of people want their employers to speak out on social issues and 76% of Gen Z demands brands promote social movements to make a change in the world.

The new Corporate Social Responsibility

The fact that customers want to see actions, not only words, has brought Corporate Social Responsibility to a higher level. But are brands really trying to make a positive change in the world? Although the answer to this question is not so simple, 2020 seems to have been a year of commitments. For example, Davos Manifesto 2020 has proposed a set of rules for a "better kind of capitalism" that focuses on how businesses should also achieve environmental, social, and good governance objectives.

Besides, a total of 181 CEOs have signed this year's statement from the Business Roundtable. Along similar lines, this declaration states that generating profit and shareholder value is not the only aim of the companies because there is now "a fundamental commitment to all the stakeholders."

Some of the world's biggest brands, such as Amazon, Apple, and Coca-Cola, have signed this manifesto, where they commit to deal ethically with the suppliers, support the communities, and protect the environment. However, the question would be to determine if these 181 companies are taking real measures to fight social injustices.

Global climate change protest demonstration strike 2019
Fridays For Future "Save the Planet, Not Your Money" protest. Credit: Markus Spiske

Some campaigns genuine, others hypocritical and questionable

Brands like Ben and Jerry's set an example of how to perform successful brand activism. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of the ice cream brand, address several social issues such as a just democracy, LGBTQIA+ issues, systemic racism, climate change, GMO labeling, equality, and fair trade. Like many other companies, Ben and Jerry's also intends to be economically sustainable and reach specific financial goals but always upholds their social mission.

However, not all big enterprises are getting brand activism right. Adidas and Nike's messages of support for racial justice have been questioned. According to an article published in the New York Times in 2019, less than 4.5% of the nearly 1,700 Adidas employees at the Portland campus identified as Black in 2018. When it comes to Nike, its public records reflect a lack of diversity on its executive team. Less than 10% of Nike's 300-plus vice-presidents in the world were Black in 2019. How can their campaigns be seen as authentic when they come from non-racial equality organizations?

Coca-Cola's project, "World Without Waste," was launched in 2018. The objective of this program is "to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one the brand sells by 2030." Although Coca-Cola also invests thousands of dollars in supporting scientific research to study micro-plastics, the multinational produces millions of tons of plastics in its packaging every year. These examples illustrate how these actions —when not aligned with a company's defined values — are just corporate hypocrisy.

Red Coca-Cola can on a red background.
The iconic Coca-Cola can. Credit: Mae Mu

Authentic brand activism or woke washing?

In conclusion, the recent worldwide events in terms of racial discrimination, LGBTQ rights, immigration, human rights, economic inequality, women's reproductive rights — among other causes — have encouraged debate on whether the brands are doing enough to fight social injustices. Besides, political and socioeconomic factors have intensified the relationship between corporations and activists. Brands have realized they need activism, and therefore, have started to look for organizations to support.

Although brand activism's growth is beyond dispute, the question under review is the authenticity and real value of these initiatives. Are brands moved by a significant concern for the most urgent issues, or is it simply social justice propaganda?

Can you think of any moments when a brand's campaign either resonated with you or seemed incongruent with their actions? Let us know in the comments. Join an organization on the WeAct beta to get involved in causes that matter to you and take action beyond consumerism.

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