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Brand activism: Should your business take a stand?

Brand activism - Should your business take a stand

Written by Laura Cullen,
at Freshfield

Most people are familiar with corporate social responsibility; the idea that businesses can show off their community credentials by creating links with heartfelt (but usually non-controversial) causes.

Yet the polarising era of Brexit and President Trump has brought about a rise in brand activism, which has seen companies not just communicating their values, but taking a strong stance on important issues like equality, tolerance and social justice.

Whereas corporate social responsibility meant a softer kind of advocacy, brand activism is when brands commit to concrete actions to advance a cause they believe in (and, importantly, one that their customers will agree with).

And while it certainly carries risk, it can cement existing customer loyalty, attract new customers, and nurture relationships that are built on shared cultural values. Below, we’ve outlined some key considerations for any business thinking about taking a stand on an issue.

Weigh up the risks and rewards

Speaking out about a controversial issue runs the risk of alienating customers, or upsetting people of influence. It’s why lots of SMEs shy away from putting their heads above the parapet.

However, it’s worth noting that current divisive times have made brand activism more common, and ultimately safer. Yes, by taking a strong stance on an issue businesses risk losing some customers who don’t agree with them, but they’re betting on something much more valuable: a stronger relationship with existing customers and appealing to new ones who share similar views.

Most companies who engage in brand activism have concluded that the loyalty it generates outweighs the distaste of those who disagree. For example, when the CEO of US company Lyft announced it was donating $1m to the American Civil Liberities Union in protest at President Trump’s policies, it received widespread praise on social media and added thousands of customers overnight.

Choose your cause wisely

Brand activism needs to be focused on an area where you have a credible role to play. It might be that your business or customers are directly affected by an issue, or the cause is aligned with your company’s purpose.

For example, it makes sense that brands such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google took a stand against Donald Trump’s travel ban, because the American technology industry workforce has a large immigrant population.

In contrast, when a small bookshop in Norwich made the decision to pull the President’s autobiography from its shelves it was accused of censorship by author Susan Hill, who was quick to point out that “Trump is not our President or our PM, he is America’s”.

A genuine connection to a cause will drive customer loyalty, but a weak link will appear disingenuous. For example, Kenco’s Coffee versus Gangs campaign resonates because the thought of young people who grow and pick our coffee beans being saved from a brutal way of life makes us feel better about ourselves. Because the business actually works with people in these communities, it’s in a credible position to act.

On the other hand, one only needs to think about how badly Kendall Jenner’s ‘Live for Now’ Pepsi advert was received to see what can happen when a brand doesn’t have a genuine connection to a cause, or trivialises an important issue.

Practice what you preach

It’s no longer enough to have a purpose, you must act on it too. There will be a steep downside for anyone who piggybacks on a campaign for some quick publicity without a true commitment to the issue.

Whatever the cause you’re backing, it must be reflected in your own business practices. For example, a university might campaign for more women in STEM careers – but to do so if it had a lack of women in top STEM positions of its own would be risky.

It’s something UK business lobby CBI discovered recently. It was accused of hypocrisy after it urged its members to broaden the diversity of their directors, despite not having a single non-white senior director at a national or regional level.

Brand activism isn’t a natural fit for every company, and its risks are obvious. However, it’s clear that consumers are responding positively to organisations that take a stand on a meaningful issue. There are risks in speaking out, but there’s also a cost to remaining silent.

Activism isn’t just the concern of big brands

There’s a tendency to think brand activism is just for big brands who have a huge following and, arguably, a greater weight of expectation on them to say and do the right thing.

But in the social media age, where members of the public will call out businesses for anything from a lack of vegan menu options to using too much packaging in their products, businesses of all shapes and sizes need to be more aware of moral, social and environmental issues.

In other words, even if they choose not to be a vocal activist, they should at least consider how they can be a better corporate citizen to engender greater customer loyalty.

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