Digital Darwinism: The Do’s and Don’ts of Brand Activism

The rise of consumer consciousness spells new risks and rewards for brands. Here’s how to take action.

Is it time for your brand to take a stand?

In an era where technology and society are evolving in a crucible of debate, divisiveness and social impact, CMOs across the country are increasingly turning to politics when it comes to defining their brand behavior. Campaigns are radicalizing. Commercials have become calls-to-action. And talking policy in business has gone from taboo to totally on-trend.

The evidence is everywhere. In 2018, one in five Americans reported participating in some form of political rally. Meanwhile, brand #boycotts continue to spread like wildfire across the Internet, while consumers increasingly call for companies to join in on social calls to action.

In fact, engaging in effective brand activism can create major moments for savvy brand managers, from helping to raise awareness, to building consumer loyalty, to helping new players in the business differentiate from the long-standing competition. But playing politics can also be a dangerous game for CMOs to play in today’s volatile environment–one misstep and brands can go from relative safety to total extinction.

Fortunately, we have some expertise in this arena, from our continuing human rights work with the Global Goals, to this spring’s exciting LGBTQ pivot campaign with MGM Resorts. Below, we offer five tips for brand leaders to effectively engage in this new age of radical branding.


DO: Make it timely
DON’T: Commercialize a crisis

There are a lot of causes to step up and speak out for right now, from supporting LGBTQ equality to upholding immigrant rights, to promoting climate action. While a lot of brand managers are clear on the “what” they hope to support with their brand activism, it’s also important to think about the “when.” Dropping a socially-conscious campaign at just the right moment, during a political controversy, for instance, or in response to a competitor’s blunder can be a great way to build momentum, awareness, and differentiation for your brand.

But tread lightly, dear demonstrator. As we’ve seen before, a poorly-thought-out push can make companies seem like they’re making light of (or even appropriating) the cause they’ve set out to uphold. Ask questions. Do your research. Make sure you know enough about a topic before speaking out (and not over) the activists that inspired your outreach.


DO: Make a statement
DON’T: Avoid taking a stand

Never underestimate the importance of authenticity. Deciding to speak out about a political, social, or civic cause can be a risky wager for any CMO—one with the potential to alienate potential customers and obliterate bottom lines. Before engaging in a pro- or anti-anything campaign, we recommend doing a thorough analysis of your audience. Find out what the benefits of speaking out could do to your bottom line. Develop personas based around the discourse happening around the topic. Understand what the effects of making that statement could be.

Then, try your best to replicate an original, honest discourse. There’s nothing worse than inserting meaningless corporate jargon or soft-line statements into an important discussion.


DO: Keep it relevant
DON’T: Post with impunity

Another big question to ask before launching any sort of brand activism: Does it make sense for your business to be speaking out about the topic in the first place? Some of the best brand-led social justice projects have been able to tap in directly to a facet of their positioning, services, or brand ecosystems to make a statement. Keeping things relevant and hyper-focused can help avoid legitimate questions around corporate authenticity (see above) and help your brand seem like an actual ally instead of a political interloper.


DO: Take action
DON’T: Make empty promises

Using your brand to raise awareness for important issues is a good first step into brand activism. But sometimes, it’s not enough to just speak out. Some of the most influential brand campaigns this year have started stepping off the soapbox and actually taking action toward their intended causes. Doing good can take any number of forms, from donating money, to offering free services, to more creative approaches like co-branded campaigns and initiatives.

The benefits of taking action in this arena are two-fold: first, it helps your outreach seem more sincere and truly helpful to whatever activism you’re trying to engage in. Second, it actually helps your intended cause in a tangible way–a win-win for both your brand and the cause you believe in.


DO: Keep Looking Forward
DON’T: Forget the Past

The final step in engaging in effective brand activism is to do as the activists do—keep pushing. Maintaining a steady message, point of view, and cause is integral to holding up your legitimacy and voice in this constantly shifting environment.

On that note, it’s also important not to forget the past. The Internet echo chamber is constantly on the lookout for hypocrisy, missteps and misinterpretations when it comes to this kind of marketing. You’ll want to be both two steps ahead and one step back. That means establishing a long-term strategy, team training, brand principles and possibly, damage control to ensure consistency long into the future.


Article images via We Mean Business, a global coalition of brands, from the World Bank to BMW which recently came together to combat climate change and invest in green technology solutions. To see our case study for the project, click here.