Brand activism, built on purpose

Alex Lirtsman
We hear the terms all the time, but how many of us are actually abiding by modern marketing’s golden rules: have a purpose and be authentic.

In the collision between consumer’s buying on brand values and the heightened ethical awareness driven by an increasingly “woke” population, consumers are voting with their dollars more than ever before. Brand activism is gaining traction—and has the power to shape our economies and culture.

In a recent Forbes study, 75 percent of millennials said it’s important that the brands they buy from give back to society. Our tech savvy and social media obsessed generations aren’t afraid to hold brands accountable online and in public spheres, as evident by recent boycotts like the Grab Your Wallet campaign against brands with connections to Trump. Inversely, most of the companies who took a clear stance against the travel ban saw their stock prices rise. Companies like Netflix, Starbucks, Facebook, and Microsoft have done quite well since they started taking a position on social injustices, in both positive social mentions and stock performance.

A brand does not need to have CSR integrated into its business model — like Toms or Warby Parker—to break through in this new paradigm. In fact, brands like Nike, REI, and Starbucks are thriving as they develop a more purposeful voice, without needing to become purely CSR-driven companies. It’s simple: be true to your values. It’s not all about politics, it’s about understanding that businesses in civil society have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right. As Sebastian Tomich, SVP of Advertising and Innovation for the New York Times put it: “There’s a way to make an impact, even without being tied to politics. Brands can take on the optimistic lenses of this divided era. For instance, there’s a need for a more globally minded U.S. culture; an opportunity to educate young mindsets about core American beliefs that brands can play a role in.”

The bulk of the world’s top brands either cater to or employ a diverse, urban, millennial audience that is deeply in-tune to the social and ethical issues of our day. Those audiences don’t just want their employers and favorite brands to reflect their values, they expect them to. And no brand is exempt. Even Skittles spoke out when dragged into the conversation about Syrian refugees. No surprise, it was a hit with frustrated, disenchanted millennials looking for any signs of hope that those with a platform to speak out care about using their position for good.

So, when should a brand enter the conscious conversation? As we’ve seen in recent examples of brand campaigns turning into PR disasters, trying to be relevant can easily backfire. Purpose without authenticity doesn’t work. Every brand has an issue that’s dear to its heart and resonates with their base. Finding a cause should not be a problem in the current climate, but having the empathy and self-awareness to speak about it authentically is. It’s about embedding the brand’s core values and exercising vigilance and good governance. The issues can be nuanced, but at the end of the day, authenticity is evident.

There’s an unspoken agreement that a brand’s values are a declaration of what it stands for and seeks to defend. Any brands that advocate and evangelize their diversity, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, and any other important issue of our day should be benefiting from the heightened ethical and moral awareness that we’re seeing. And in an age when buying from a brand is a vote for its values, establishing a clear purpose and authentically supporting it does not just put the brand on the right side of history, it impacts the bottom line.

Founding Partner & Chief Strategist