Unilever pioneers social purpose driven marketing via Ben & Jerry’s Empowerment ice-cream and Dove’s Speak Beautiful Effect. KFC donates $1,000 to anyone pictured undertaking the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ using their fried-chicken tub. Kendall Jenner and PepsiCo vandalise protest culture in a tone-deaf and repugnant advertisement, disastrously mimicking one of the most significant activist movements.
Even Wall Street is capitalising on activism; one ‘socially conscious’ hedge-fund manager said to The Financial Times, “activism has become as much a marketing strategy as it has an investment strategy.”
Previously brands have acted on issues via corporate social responsibility, social governance programs or by funding not-for-profit ventures in their name. When an issue was on trend, corporations followed. Now there is an aim to be part of the trend.
Corporations are audaciously exploiting political capital to capitalise on it; they are no longer just ‘mission-driven’, they are #partofthemovement. If brands continue to emulate political action, will 2017 be the year they rebrand their customers as constituents?
There is a business risk with brand activism; by taking a clear, political position a company stands to lose customers who may not agree with that stance. However, companies are waging that they may create a more profound relationship with customers who are attracted to those values, at the same time as captivating new ones who are equally passionate about that issue.
In the earlier stages of social marketing development Philip Kotler, a founding figure in modern marketing, posed the question to companies, “what are you doing as a brand to make the world a better place?” With the cynicism of brand activism in mind, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask, “what are you doing as a brand to make it look like you want to make the world a better place?”
Sweeping and detailed scrutiny must be applied to all brand activism as companies find new avenues to leverage and monetise genuine social movements and protest culture. Social movement’s ideology consists of three core representational elements; their goal, themselves, and their adversary.
Companies mimicking them have; shareholder return, increased profit margins, and business growth.
This is not to discredit positive outcomes that have come about thanks to company money or notable advertisement campaigns that have been apart of genuine social change. Nor is it to assert that every social movement benefits its community.
It is to highlight that brand activism is a worrying corporate trend that will have a lasting impact on protest culture. Companies will co-opt, repackage, and ultimately tire younger people who are exposed to it, many of who already struggle with political engagement. Of the 980,000 unenrolled Australians, 380,000 of them are in the 18-25 age bracket; almost 18 percent of all people in that age group, compared to around six percent of the general population. During the 2015 General Election in the UK, British Election Study data suggests that the turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was only 58%.
Genuine political action and protest may become increasingly difficult to distinguish in the future. International Women’s Day is currently sponsored by AECOM, AVON, bp, CATERPILLAR, European Bank, f5, MetLife, Pepsico, Vodafone and Western Union. Audi’s Super Bowl commercial declared they were for gender pay equality, despite the fact no women sit on Audi’s Management Board and its 14 person American executive team only has two women on it. Hashtag culture is continually, and often disastrously, permeated; see IBM’s misogynist #hackahairdryer campaign. The pride flag has been so hackneyed by advertising that its stripes are quickly losing their vibrancy.
The activist economy is thriving. The stocks are rising. But what goes up, must come down. Consumers can vote with their money and must hold companies accountable. How brands interact with social change when it’s no longer a trend, will be testament of their true intention.