Should brands advocate activism?

Historically, brands have been largely a-political, seeking the broadest possible appeal for their ads. But, following the seismic political shifts of 2016, is it time that brands became activists for issues that their consumers care about?

The 2017 Women's March Protests following President Trump's inauguration


You can’t have missed the ads on Facebook and Twitter that call for big brands to pull advertising in national newspapers such as The Sun, the Daily Mail and The Express. As Chris Clarke of Campaign Live puts it, ‘What brand wants to be associated with newspapers accused by the Council of Europe of hate speech?’. Quite. The objection stretches as high up as the United Nations with the High Commissioner for Human Rights urging the UK to tackle hate speech in response to Katie Hopkins’ infamous “cockroach” article. But, can ethics ever win out over broad, mass-market appeal?

Stop Funding Hate?


Perhaps. The Stop Funding Hate campaign claimed its first success with Lego, a brand recognised for its ethical positioning and consumer-led campaigns (who have just been ranked as one of the most highly-regarded companies in the world) and have since had successes with the Body Shop and Plusnet.

And, across the pond, companies are increasingly putting their head above the Donald-Trump parapet, with Starbucks announcing plans to hire 10,000 refugees and Airbnb offering free accommodation to those impacted by the travel ban.

Grab your wallet


Ivanka has also felt the effects of her father’s presidency with a #grabyourwallet campaign designed to persuade consumers to boycott brands that benefit the Trumps. As a result Nordstrom, ShopStyle and Shoes.com have ditched her lines, with the latter initially tweeting, ‘We understand and your voices have been heard” before deleting the potentially contentious tweet shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, Google face potential revenue and reputational damage in the wake of brands’ ads appearing alongside extremist content on YouTube. To date, more than 250 advertisers have suspended their advertising on YouTube with brands including HSBC, Marks and Spencer, McDonalds and L’Oreal all pulling funding in protest. But, whilst Google’s approval ratings have taken a bashing (with their “buzz ratings” falling by more than 20 points in the two weeks following the controversy) there are still plenty of brands happy to simply opt for the broadest reach possible.

Is it a brand's place to judge?


And, the question still remains, is it a brand’s place to pass judgement on editorial pieces? Some think not. John Lewis issued a statement in relation to the Stop Funding Hate campaign, saying: “We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper.” And countless others continue to advertise without paying too much heed to the latest twitter outrage.

The truth is, many brands are waiting for the business case rather than the moral one but as consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity and to stay on top of who and what their brands stands for, time may not be on their side.

In the current socio-political climate, there is a need for businesses to carefully define what their brand stands for. Brands are no longer formed by themselves, but by the views of consumers and those that manage to generate an emotional connection are most likely to succeed. Long gone are the days when consumers passively consumed corporate messages. According to Jonah Berger, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the bestseller 'Contagious: Why things catch on’, "talk[ing] about brands is a way for people to show that they are aware of the latest trends” and never has it felt more necessary to have your finger on the political pulse.


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