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Five Tips for Navigating Social Change in the Face of Rising Brand Activism

A version of this blog was originally presented as a live talk @AAI  in February 2019.

“Each evolutionary leap is accompanied by a change in our primary mode of communication” 

Terence McKenna

Counter-cultural icon, ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terrence McKenna probably did not have advertising of the forefront of his mind when he observed that biological evolution tracks with semiotic evolution, but it’s inarguable that each new medium has portended a cultural shift and inspired a new way to market.  

Where the early internet democratised access to information and offered brands new ways to disseminate campaigns, the social web democratised the dissemination of information—accelerating our evolution from consumers of brands to co-creators.  

While brands have always been used to signal our values, social media created an ecosystem where a brand’s semiotic meaning is largely determined by its fans. And more recently, by its detractors.

Since the launch of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign 12 years ago the number of brands assuming the mantle of ‘Activist’ has grown. In the past three years, their numbers have grown exponentially. Traditional feature and benefit-focused brand campaigns seem to be going out of fashion and the proven 60:40 brand:tactical ratio for for growth has all but been abandoned.

What’s happening? Is advertising, as we have known it, having a Willie Loman moment?

How did we shift from Benetton being one of the only brands willing to leverage controversial social issues, to activist-flavoured campaigns accounting for 50% of the top awards at Cannes? 

Why did Gillette—one of the most vanilla brands on the planet—go from catering to the middle with product-focused, celebrity-studded ads, to taking a hard left at the risk of alienating their base?

Answers can be found in recent history and examples of how the industry has responded to rapid technological and societal changes.

In the 18 months preceding February 2019:  

GDPR ushered in a new set of consumer protections that mostly seemed to hit the digital display and inbound business, while leaving Google, Facebook—and to a lesser extent Amazon—free to continue hoovering up the majority of digital ad spend;

The Brand Safety issue around questionable digital ad placements raged on; 

State Street came under fire for the spectacular hypocrisy of Fearless Girl;

State Street, Fearless Girl

Lush UK had dropped a dud bath bomb with SpyCops, a campaign calling out the police practice of seducing activists (presumably with fragrant soaps?); 

Lloyds Bank tried to convince people to out their mental health issues with a hashtag (to offer them great rates on loans, no doubt);

And, Nike had seemingly overnight invented a new model for marketing value that henceforth shall be known as Wokenomics.  This new calculus derives 100% of marketing value from the 50% general public that love your message (but don’t really drive sales) and the other 50% from those who drive earned media (but really don’t love your message).

Colin Kaepernick, Nike ad

In other words, there’s no such thing as bad engagement. 

Meanwhile, beyond the walls of the industry:

The corrupting power of social media had broken out of conspiracy circles to become the pet cause of traditional media companies and tech luminaries alike;

A culture war was hotting up with new frontlines appearing in cafes, universities, legislatures, awards ceremonies and Twitter feeds everywhere;

Late Capitalism had become something to meme; 

And, the world’s largest economy was piloting Capitalism 3 point Uh-Oh, digitally enabled for full spectrum surveillance. If you’re not familiar with China’s social credit system and have some time, do check out this Wired article

TLDR? China’s latest innovation is Surveillance Capitalism, a dystopian nightmare that turns life into a video game, rewarding government sanctioned behaviour with consumer discounts and punishing non-compliance with social and economic penalties. While it’s left many Westerners spooked by the possibility of Black Mirror becoming reality, it’s got others—like one young Dublin-based digital strategist we spoke with—excited about the prospect of paying for products with Likes. With Facebook set to launch its own crypto currency this year, the reality can’t be far off.

In more uplifting news, the idea of the triple bottom line is taking root in boardrooms everywhere—a shift arguably driven by the head of the world’s largest and most influential investment company. 

When Blackrock boss Larry Fink speaks, business listens. As does anyone else interested in what the head of company managing US $6 Trillion in assets has to say. 

A recent global survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit offers evidence of Fink’s influence, revealing that 67% of those in C-suite positions put sustainability before profitability.  This suggests is that a pivot toward non-market marketing strategies is underway. And, that we’ll be seeing more, not less brand activism.

All of this is to demonstrate that the rise of brand activism didn’t happen in a vacuum, or because we all followed Don Draper to Esalen. The conditions that have allowed brands to thrive over the past 70 years have changed. These tensions are forging a new and righteous form of brand communication that demands we re-evaluate the role of advertising and how marketing creates value—not just for business, but for consumers and the cultures they operate in.

What forces have brought us to this place? 

While could pin all of the blame on technology, as of today the bots haven’t completely taken over, so we’ve apportioned responsibility across four drivers: 

  1. Technology
  2. Waning trust in institutions
  3. The rise of the political consumer, and 
  4. Industry’s belief in digital as a panacea

Technology’s double-edged sword has democratised access to information and dissemination and given us near infinite choice of programming and products. But it has also:

Atomised society and fostered a new economy that trades on Attention, creating a media ecosystem that rewards extremity and shock value;

Inspired the media’s pivot towards subscription models, signalling curtains for traditionally ad-supported media;

Established a duopoly that shifted the industry’s focus to hyper-targeted tactical ads and click-bait;

And, threatened to reduce advertising to a tax on the poor via the rise of ad-blocking, if not tiered media subscription models.

More recently, the world’s second trillion dollar company made moves into predictive purchases and click-less delivery, posing an existential threat for brands in general.

All the while, disillusionment in governments and their ability to tackle thorny problems is on the rise.

Here in Ireland the Church’s issues haven’t gone away. Scandal has rocked the Gardaí. And we’re still experiencing the fallout from austerity with healthcare, education & housing in crises. 

The clowns to the east of us and jokers to the west don’t exactly instil the greatest of confidence, as suggested by Edelman’s Trust Barometer, which last year reported that 51% of us believe brands have more power to both address and solve social issues than democratically elected officials.

Whether you see this tweet as toothless satire, or cutting insight, we are living in an era where the appearance of social consciousness is necessary for social credibility.

Given the headlines since 2016 it should be no surprise we are witnessing the rise of the political consumer.

Over the past 18 months, a handful of reports have noted the rise of the political consumer. But it’s interesting to note the majority cite the same sources, play fast and loose with methodology, and fail to explain basic discrepancies. 

If you’ve caught that the YouGov figures add up to more than 100, well done you. 

It’s therefore fair to question whether the industry is falling victim to the very biases it has become so quick to call out, whether we are guilty of cherrypicking data, or simply gazing deep into the navel of our own educated, liberal soft centre forgetting that the biggest drivers of of FMCG sales is not corporate support of social causes, but rather boringly—familiarity and discount offers.

So again, while it would be easy lay blame for the industry’s decline at the jackboots of Big Tech, we have a responsibility to look in the mirror.

Since 2007 digital has been touted as a cure for wasted spend and consumer attention. 

As an industry we have responded to these shifts by doubling down on the rhetoric of our new masters. Considering concrete and credible data was the very explicit promise of digital marketing it’s ironic that despite its failure to deliver, we continue to be in thrall to holographic social data. 

See: Social Desirability Bias; Codswallop

We repeat the false promises of behavioural targeting like a mantra, educating clients to prioritise tactics over brand building. And we blindly adopt the efficacy and attribution models of walled gardens, neglecting to develop metrics that stand up to independent corroboration or external scrutiny, while optimising campaigns for engagement rather than affinity. 

During the course of our research we found an inordinate number of articles citing the same three, non-peer reviewed studies, all of which relied upon self-reported data, rather than revealed behaviour. The few that did report revealed behaviour found that taking a stance on social, political or environmental issues is indeed riskier than what the oft-repeated ’66% of consumers want brands to take a stand’ stat would have you believe.

A 2018 study on CEO advocacy from Columbia Business School found that publicly declaring a social, political or environmental stance has a materially demotivating effect on employees who disagree with the stance, and no statistical bearing on the output of employees who agree with the company’s stance. 

If these results map to consumer behaviour, we could infer that brand activism has a net negative impact when the target audience is politically diverse. If you believe that political diversity is necessary for a healthy democracy, this study is worth noting and highlights the not-so-delicious irony of activist-flavoured campaigns—if only those where positive social impact rather than mere signalling is the goal.

The good news? If you have a low appetite for risk, a heart condition, or lack the level of clearance required to make the call to pimp a cause, never fear! You can borrow from what makes brand activism so powerful without the risk of inviting a social media furore, a consumer boycott, or indeed the ire of your old, ill, rich and religious uncle down the country. 

The following five tips should be useful, regardless of whether an activism flavoured campaign is right for your brand.

1. Build your employer brand & company culture around a unifying purpose. 

Before you rush out with placards blazing, bring your activism in house.  Make sure the values the you profess to support extend right through your supply chain. 

While these actions require significant commitment, they will deliver long term impact: inspiring brand evangelism, providing irrefutable evidence of pro-social credentials and fuel for successful non-market marketing strategies—not to mention insulating the brand from controversy.  

2. Opt for compatibility over popularity

If your brand has a history of drug-cartel-money-laundering then campaigning for gun control, human rights or decriminalisation are probably bad ideas. Credibility and campaign traction depend on an idea being an expression of the brand’s DNA.

3. Don’t try to be all things to all people

Know thy brand. Understand how your brand creates value for its audience, how it helps them solve their challenges, achieve their aspirations and yes, signal to their tribe.  

4. Don’t measure marketing efficiency, measure social impact

Actions speak louder than viral videos. Sound and fury will be quickly outed, so establish KPIs that assess the social and environmental dimensions of your triple bottom line. As Bill Bernbach said, “It’s not a principle unless it costs you money.”

5. Build a bridge, don’t drive a wedge

If you want to position yourself as a role model or an arbiter of social justice, carefully consider how your campaign might be used by competitors, or those with opposing views and whether you’re prepared for potential blowback. Ask yourself if you’re willing risk exacerbating an existing social division for a dramatic, but probably short-lived, spike in traffic.

Remember, brands are social constructs and detractors may have just as much an impact on your brand as your marketing communications.

All of this is to say:
Be brave, be honest and be kind.
The future is ideological philosophical.


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