Three common pitfalls of brand activism - and how to avoid them

I embrace brands moving beyond bolt-on CSR strategies into real social change.

The perils and pitfalls of brand activism can be avoided, writes Georgie Howlett
The perils and pitfalls of brand activism can be avoided, writes Georgie Howlett

What previously fell to cash-strapped charities, governments restricted by red tape, and social enterprises doing brilliant things on small scales has become everyone’s business.

This is good.

Brand activism is something brands do to act on their wider social purpose and deliver a tangible outcome. 

It could be lobbying a sector or government for change, building a movement to address a systemic issue, or nudging positive shifts in behaviour.

But there are three common pitfalls:

You venture outside your sphere of influence

It’s obvious when your brand’s core identity and activity is disconnected. Consumers feel you don’t have licence to get involved. Worse, you do so naively in a way that means you are tonally way off the mark – e.g. Pepsi.

How to avoid this: Map out your space and what’s firmly within it - what levers can you pull on? Have you made friends with others already working in this area? Use your social purpose as your north star. Think Patagonia. If you don’t have a clear social purpose, you may need to go back a few steps to go forward.

Your activism is skin deep

You haven’t done any work internally to bring your teams with you - for some, the external comms is the first they hear of it. Even worse, your internal practices conflict with some of your activism messaging – e.g. Gillette. You blindly follow a trending issue without understanding the context for your audience and you don’t follow through.

How to avoid this: Start inside your organisation. Bring in other teams, not just brand/external comms. The more joined up you are, the better. Listen to your audiences - how do they connect with this issue? Can you get some early advocates on board and test your message? Co-create? The benefits of starting quietly and piloting before scaling it are underrated. Think long-term. The Body Shop is great at this.

You don’t know how to drive real social change

You spark controversial debate or create the impression that you care. You spend your entire budget on brand-led content, but beyond putting your stamp on the issue, you haven’t thought about how to move the needle, which means you have little to no actual impact.

How to avoid this: Start with where you can make a difference and work backwards. Be specific about the perfect combination of activities you need to do - sometimes it’s not glamorous or immediately visible. It means investing in measurement and tracking (particularly for behaviour change). If you’re going to be a brand activist, you have to be able to show how what you’re doing is having an impact.

I celebrate the fact that even misjudged campaigns put issues on the public agenda. 

I know people get tied up in knots over whether the priority objective is financial over social, but if brand activism results in positive change, then (as long as that business isn’t morally corrupt) what’s the harm if it benefits society, the planet and the bottom line? 

Georgie Howlett is associate director at Kin&Co

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