The outturn of the recent presidential elections in the United States gives us a glimpse of how people’s choices become more value-driven and issues-responsive by the day. According to US election: The top 5 issues for voters published by Deutsche Welle (DW), most Americans voted based on the responses of their candidates to key issues on racial discrimination, healthcare, poverty and the economy, among others. The trend is not limited to politics. Consumers also “vote” brands that are aligned with their values with their purchase preference. Consumers now put their money where their mouth is and in turn, they expect the brands they support to do the same. This quid pro quo relationship usually happens in what we call Brand Activism.


Primarily driven by the values shared by both brands and their consumers, Brand Activism allows companies and businesses to expand their positive societal impact by making their goods, services, or manner of operating contribute directly to the identification and resolution of some relevant societal issues. While Brand Activism helps brands engage their target consumers on a much personal level,  not all brands can pull it off easily. Some brands had their “socially-relevant” marketing campaigns backfire. 


In an attempt to ride the discussion on racial discrimination and growing popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi mounted a campaign in 2017 which was starred by a white supermodel by the name of Kendall Jenner. The TV advertisement shows Jenner handing a Pepsi to a riot police. On the other hand, Starbucks mounted their #RaceTogether campaign in 2014 where their baristas wrote #RaceTogether in every cup of coffee people order to fuel the discussion on racial discrimination. Both campaigns failed and backfired. 


Consumers thought of the campaigns as clout chasing. For Pepsi, getting a white celebrity to push for the cause of Black Lives Matter is just tone deaf. For Starbucks, dabbling in the discussion of racial discrimination was something novel for the brand. For their customers, Starbucks has not provided the proper context to legitimize their stand on the issue since they have not been associated with such a cause prior to their #RaceTogether campaign. Without actual contribution to and thorough knowledge of the significance and depth of the issues being tackled, Pepsi and Starbucks’ campaigns were both lacking in sincerity to elicit expected participation or engagement from their respective audiences.


According to the findings of the Comm&Sense Brand Activism Poll Series, brand activism is still perceived as a PR or a marketing stunt by some. The findings of the study also provided insights on what people think can make brands more credible in their brand activism efforts. Among these findings are the following: 


  1. Brands should do something more concrete such as implementing a program or a project to help address or solve social issues rather than just talk about them;
  2. Brands should help promote awareness about a certain social issue they wish to address by disseminating relevant information to their target consumers; and,
  3. Brands should be discerning about the social issues they support or promote. The social issues they address should be consistent with their brand principles and values.


These three recommended actions, however simple and common sensical they could be, are oftentimes overlooked by brands when they prioritize audience reach rather than engaging their consumers and maximizing brand impact. Some brands forget that among brand activism’s benefits is that it can create customer loyalty and generate sales for the brand if done right. 


At the end of the day, Brand Activism is all about making your brand genuine and sincere so that your target consumers will find your brand worthy enough for their time, attention, and their money.