From Brand Activism To Brand Leadership

Anne Bahr ThompsonFebruary 26, 20186 min

Profound changes in cultural sentiment are shifting the landscape for business at an accelerating rate. Many companies across industries are stepping up and taking stances on issues traditionally considered outside the realm of business. Traditionally, brands have sought to cultivate customers and employees that will advocate for them. Today, the tides are turning, and people are insisting that brands advocate for the things that matter most to them before they do the same.

The number of brands that are taking activist stances on topics in the public debate continues to grow. In an increasingly divided political climate, government policy is increasing, rather than decreasing, the call for companies to behave responsibly. More and more, the public is demanding that leadership brands declare a point of view on social justice, civil liberties, the environment, and most recently gun control.

Taking a public stand is by nature polarizing. Not everyone defines doing good in the same way. To minimize backlash and not violate trust with customers, employees, and other stakeholders, it’s therefore crucial that a company only takes a stand that reflects its purpose, values, and, importantly, its operational practices.

Leadership And Responsibility Are Inseparable

Beginning as early as December 2011, my three years of research into brand leadership, good corporate citizenship, and favorite brands, which ultimately led to my five-step model of Brand Citizenship that I detail in my book Do Good, demonstrated that leadership and responsibility can no longer be viewed as separate from one another. Step 3 of the model – Responsibility, behave fairly and treat employees, suppliers and the environment well – emerged as the pivot point between being a brand that provides solutions to personal ME problems and needs and one that addresses generalized WE worries about the economy, the problems in the world, and the planet. Participants identified issues related to civil justice, social liberties, and the environment as safe territory for brands to take up positions. Simultaneously they told us that brands, which behave transparently and – even more importantly – sincerely, encourage us to bring out the best of ourselves and progress society. They considered these brands leaders.

Fast forward to June 2015, legacy and newer brands alike, such as American Airlines, BuzzFeed, Honey Maid, Ketel One, MasterCard, Spotify, Target, and Uber, flew the rainbow flag for marriage equality. Later that year, Airbnb, Alcoa, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Monsanto, Walmart, and many others openly signed President Obama’s climate change pledge.

The Turning Point For Activism

In November 2016, the Breitbart News controversy created a tipping point in the U.S.. Allstate, EarthLink, Kellogg’s, Nest, Target, and Warby Parker pulled ads from the alternative-right media platform because of strong racist and anti-Semitic views. Steve Bannon, who became chief strategist to President Donald Trump after serving as his campaign’s chief executive, was a founding board member for Breitbart News. While companies that supported the Supreme Court’s decision about gay marriage and Obama’s climate change pledge were generally praised, those that ended their relationships with Breitbart News, most notably Kellogg’s, faced repercussions.

On November 30, 2016, Breitbart News posted an inflammatory article with the headline, “#DumpKelloggs: Breakfast Brand Blacklists Breitbart, Declares Hate for 45,000,000 Readers.” Labeling the “war against Breitbart News as bigoted and anti-American,” Editor in Chief, Alexander Marlow, angrily called for readers to sign a petition urging people to boycott all of Kellogg’s products.

Many others thought Kellogg’s and the other brands were behaving insincerely. After all, Breitbart News’s values hadn’t troubled these brands until after Steve Bannon was named then President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist. For some, Kellogg’s decision was less about the brand’s absolute stance and more about the company’s inconsistent behavior.

Brand Activism Grows Increasingly Political

Throughout 2017, the number of brands taking overt political positions grew. Many tech giants expressed opposition to the Trump administration’s controversial immigration ban, which potentially impacts their workforces directly. Known for democratizing the hospitality industry and valuing equality, Airbnb went further than most tech companies setting a goal to provide housing for 100,000 people in need and contributed $4 million to the International Rescue Committee in support of displaced people worldwide. And the ride hailing app Lyft surpassed its direct competitor and industry leader, Uber, in Apple’s App Store after Uber did not participate in related protests and a taxi strike at JFK airport. Lyft pledged $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union as it denounced the ban and the hashtag #DeleteUber trended on social media.

Former New York City mayor and business leader Michael Bloomberg has spearheaded the fight for the US to meet its Paris accord greenhouse gas targets. Across industries, corporations including Burton Snowboards, Apple, Campbell Soup, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Target, and Timberland, signed an open letter, “We Are Still In,” alongside elected officials such as mayors and governors. The letter publicly declared their support to meet commitments despite President Trump’s decision to pull out of it.

While these immigration and climate change stances clearly reflect the areas participants in my research identified as safe for activism, most recently, in the wake of the Parkland, Fla, school shooting, a growing number of companies have taken more overtly political stances on gun control. First National Bank of Omaha pledged that it would not renew a Visa card co-branded with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Delta, United Airlines, MetLife Inc., Hertz, and Best Western each announced plans to terminate special discounts and benefits for NRA members. And with online petitions urging companies to #BoycottNRA circulating, the pressure to disassociate from the NRA will likely mount.

The Logical Next Step: Ideals

Businesses have progressed from historically targeting audiences for their products and services based on demographics to psychographics, and they now micro-target based on people’s lifestyle aspirations and values. With the populace divided, it may be logical that people now expect brands they buy to also embrace their ideals. Over my three years of qualitative and quantitative research with more than 6000 people, many participants consistently told us that they felt better about themselves when they bought brands that “did good.” And that they questioned their brand choices when they learned a brand wasn’t behaving responsibly.

The brands we choose are extensions of who we are. They act as badges for what we are about to other people. The acid test of a satisfying brand relationship is rooted not in grand gestures or even in constant chatter and interactions, but rather in thoughtful, empathic actions and small, meaningful deeds that both improve our daily lives and help us to feel as though we belong to a group of like-minded people. Step 4 – Community – of the model of Brand Citizenship reflects the ways brands physically, virtually and emotionally rally communities of like-minded people and influence our behavior, often for the better and to fix social problems.

Sincerity Wins Trust And Builds Leadership

As distrust of politicians and longstanding institutions heightens, people are much less accepting of face value. They readily see through crafted messaging, political rhetoric, and marketing hype. Like a sincere person, a sincere brand openly shares its point of view on the world. It does not aggrandize itself or take advantage of the latest news cycle. To minimize the risk of violating trust – the starting point of good of Brand Citizenship—it’s essential that a brand only takes a stance that aligns with its purpose, values, and operating principles and policies. As more people view companies as providing better solutions to social challenges than governments, the brands that take stances sincerely will be touted as leaders.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Anne Bahr Thompson. Excerpted from her new book Do Good, Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit.

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