5 Types of Activism Every Brand Should Prepare for, Even If You’re Not Taking Sides

How to balance value and values in the activist economy

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These days it’s virtually impossible to log on to Facebook or Twitter without a discussion unfolding around politics. In fact, it’s become common for people to take “breaks” from social media to limit their exposure to constant political controversies and social issues.

As a consumer, it’s difficult to remain neutral when it feels like everyone has taken a side. From a brand perspective, it’s not much different.

If there was a clear trend to emerge during this year’s Super Bowl—it was brand activism. From Airbnb to Audi to 84 Lumber, brands decided it was time to take a stand on issues dominating the societal discourse. In some cases, brand activism was cheered on by consumers, but backlash was just as common. Since 84 Lumber’s ad aired, the company’s CEO has worked to clarify that the ad wasn’t meant to support illegal immigration.

This situation goes far beyond the Super Bowl. Many brands have recently found themselves in the middle of political debates, and even if a brand isn’t taking a side—its consumers still are.

Welcome to the “activist economy,” where a brand’s value and values are now becoming intertwined and indistinguishable. And it’s not limited to consumers of brands, but also a brand’s employees, partners, representatives and even the brand itself.

In the activist economy, these societal issues will continue to penetrate the consumer consciousness in five key areas:

1. Consumer activism

Empowered by social media and fueled by political issues—consumers have the power to quickly organize, assemble, vocalize support or express dissent. For brands, these actions can help in the form of positive sentiment or hurt in the form of protests from the purse. For example, Uber reportedly lost more than 200,000 customers during the #DeleteUber consumer activist campaign because consumers were unhappy with the perception that the brand was unjustly benefitting from protests at airports across the country.

2. Brand activism

Much like consumer dynamics, societal and political issues are forcing brands to evaluate where they stand or risk leaving their position open to interpretation by consumers. The uptick in brands grappling with this emerging reality, either proactively or reactively, is symptomatic of larger societal shifts and realities including the re-emergence of populism, distrust in key institutions such as government and media, and world-shaping events like Trump’s election or Brexit.

Employees are consumers too, following issues that affect them while taking note of where their employers stand.

3. Employee activism

In today’s polarized environment, employees are also engaging on issues they care about. After all, employees are consumers too, following issues that affect them while taking note of where their employers stand. For too long, companies have ignored their employee base when it comes to communicating around key issues, whether it be taxes, immigration or trade, and this status quo is unsustainable as employees effortlessly toggle between concerned citizen and brand ambassador.

4. Spokesperson activism

From paid celebrities to influencers to corporate executives, today’s polarized environment heightens the scrutiny of people who act as the face of a brand in any capacity. YouTube and Disney both recently dropped deals with PewDiePie, the internet’s highest paid YouTuber, due to a controversy involving anti-Semitic rhetoric. In an activist economy, if you are compensated by a brand, consumers will hold you accountable. Equally, those representing the brand will hold the brand accountable when values are at odds.

5. Media activism

Polarization is reflected in media we consume in a landscape where we can find outlets and voices that reflect our world view and sensibilities, whether it’s The New Yorker, Fox News, Breitbart or The Huffington Post. Increasingly, this “self-selection” by consumers of media they agree with is symptomatic of trust issues with the media. Edelman’s Trust Barometer points out how trust in media is at an all-time low, and we can expect to see this self-selecting behavior continue.

If consumers, spokespeople, employees and media are all engaged in an activist economy, the implication for brands is multifaceted. A polarized environment will force brands to revisit their “value propositions” with the brand (and corporation’s) “values” and actions. For example, it is not enough to champion equal opportunities but not reflect this in the executive ranks or employee base.

A brand’s value proposition and values must be in lockstep now more than ever. So how can we evolve, promote and protect brands in this new activist economy?

Brands must be prepared to weigh in on a societal issue before it becomes a flashpoint. Having a playbook in advance will no longer be a "nice to have."

In a polarized world where consumers are increasingly “taking sides,” it’s not enough for brands to simply link to societal issues to promote themselves or act quickly to defend the brand. They need to do both simultaneously. In addition, brands must be ready to ensure that the higher purpose of what they stand for aligns with how the company operates. For brands that find themselves navigating such fast-moving waters, the following construct will become essential:

Protect: 

Brands must be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice. Implement an “ABM” (Always Be Monitoring) approach not only for brand mentions on search and social, but for tangential issues that have potential impact. For example, Barilla (a client of my company, Edelman) has multiple listening rooms to monitor both brand mentions and issues as an early warning system. This monitoring should extend to communities offline where early signals help identify emerging issues before they become public.

Promote:

In addition to being prepared, it’s important to consider the various issues that might offer opportunities for brands to take a stance on certain issues. The critical caveat is that societal issues should be relevant to the business. Before brands jump headfirst into taking a stance, several questions must be addressed:

Do we have a right to weigh in on a specific societal issue?

Do our core values align with our value proposition to the consumer/customer?

Who will we possibly alienate? Who doesn’t share the same values we do?

Evolve:

The current environment offers brands the opportunity to reimagine their own foundation for using both the societal and activist lenses as a blueprint for how their brand positioning needs to evolve. Patagonia, for example, refers to itself as “the activist company” and clearly articulates the societal issues it takes a stance on.  While this approach is certainly not right for all brands, many have yet to do this type of foundational work and still rely on brand equity through the traditional lens of the brand value proposition vs. how the brand values translate in a world prone to activism.

Brands can and will thrive in this polarized environment, but the intersection of what their value proposition means, how it’s articulated and and how it’s embodied must become one.

In addition, brands must be prepared to weigh in on societal issues before they become flash points. Having a playbook in advance will no longer just be “nice to have.” Consumers on any side of an issue will view their everyday interactions with brands through this fractured prism.

For brands, the activist economy will play out at the intersection of aligning a brand’s value proposition with living out the company’s values. For consumers, they will act accordingly to what resonates with their own.