We The People
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Beware, the rise of the activist brand

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Purpose beyond commercial gain, more popularly dubbed ‘brand purpose’, has become the holy grail of building the modern brand. It makes sense; as social creatures, we all have a primal desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. A direction that shapes our identity, how we interact with others and (more importantly for you) how we spend our hard-earned dollars. Brand purpose has allowed brands to grow deep roots. And in a world longing for connection more than ever before, a single uniting purpose can have a very powerful effect.

This year, we will see the rise of the ‘Activist Brand’. Organisations who stand-up and act on their brand purpose with real action, not just a nice advertising campaign. Brands who are willing to take risks and brands who will move with their customers as one.

To set the scene; the current state of global politics has created a vacuum of uncertainty and mistrust. You’d have needed to be hiding under a rock to miss the plethora of ‘WTF’ political moments (think Trump and Brexit) that have shaken Western democracies to their core. Fake news, Russian hacking and a toxic political discourse have left people’s trust in government shaken and uncertain. Institutions that used to represent stable, deep held societal values are now being questioned or becoming more and more unreliable.

Whilst many Aussies would like to think that this is a trend just playing out on overseas, we’re seeing more mistrust and doubt creep into our island nation. Yet another government leadership spill, a new Prime Minister and a merry-go-round debate about the tearing down of public institutions, like the ABC, isn’t helping.

This has created the opportunity for what we’re calling ‘activist brands’ to stand up and be counted. An ‘activist brand’ is an organisation who is using their significant power to push for change, or even be the change. They’re filling the void of uncertainty with action and are willing to fight for what they believe.

Naturally, when thinking about ‘Activist Brands’, your mind may wander to Nike’s ‘Crazy Dream’ campaign released in mid-2018 featuring human-rights activist and NFL player, Colin Kaepernick. (For those who haven’t read or seen it, you can check out some of the coverage here) Undoubtedly, as planned by Nike’s marketing masterminds in Portland, this campaign polarised, shocked and enraged. But it also inspired, impacted and drew their customers closer. A calculated risk no doubt, especially with a rouge tweeting President on the loose. The campaign aligned perfectly with their ‘Just do it’ brand purpose and at the end of the day Nike are probably better off because of it.

However, in 2019, just saying what you stand for won’t be enough to be an ‘activist brand’. A true ‘activist brand’ will put their money where their mouth is and work to actually be the change – not just loud voice amongst the crowd.

 
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Who's an activist brand today?

 

Patagonia

Outdoor clothing supplier Patagonia has taken their brand purpose, “we’re in business to save our home planet” far beyond a marketing campaign and into a courtroom. It sued the US Federal Government for trying to reduce the size of a National Park in Utah and donated the $10 million they gained through Donald Trump’s new business tax benefit to fight Climate Change. They've even endorsed political candidates in State Elections.

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adidas x Parley

Since 2015, adidas have partnered with Parley, an environmental action organisation to fight the release of plastic into our oceans. They’ve produced running shoes, shirts, jumpers and bags, all exclusively from plastic taken out from the ocean. To be the change, adidas have begun phasing out their use of new plastics in production, committing to use only recycled plastics by 2024.

 
 
 
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How should you respond?

Being an ‘activist brand’ in 2019 can come at a cost. As is the risk with all battles, you may end up a loser. And especially in social or political battles, there are BIG losers. Some will see you as a shining light in the darkness and others will despise you. Being an ‘activist brand’ isn’t for everyone and we imagine that only a very brave few in Australia will take up the challenge. As put by our friends at TrendWatching – this trend will likely make people feel very uncomfortable (as it rightly should). Being an ‘activist brand’ is difficult, at times awkward and resource draining. The stakes are high, but so is the reward.

A recent example that comes to mind is Qantas (funnily enough Australia’s third most trusted brand) and their stance on the recent Marriage Equality debate. They won the hearts of many as they fought for ‘Spirit of [contemporary] Australia’, but they also drew many spears as well. A pie was thrown in their CEO’s face, Margaret Court got writing letters to the editor and the commentary on social media was vile.

They won some people and they lost some people. As is the journey of all activist brands. But the ones who they won are now infinitely more valuable to Qantas than those who they lost.

We put these challenging questions to you brave few willing to consider the implications of this trend for your brand.

  • What’s your purpose as a brand, a company, an organisation (beyond your well-crafted tagline or balance sheet bottom line)?

  • What would it mean for you to really fight for your purpose in the public domain?

  • What are your stakeholders saying? Do they agree with you? Are they willing to back you in? (It’s VERY important that you listen long and hard before going all in)

  • What are the risks – is it actually worth it?

The answer may be no. You may conclude that being an ‘activist brand’ isn’t for you. That’s completely fine. But for those brave enough to take the leap, you have an audience now more open than ever before to brands taking up a leadership role in broader society.

 
 
 

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