Unfathomable events in the world have pushed many to take a stand. While the greatest credit goes to people speaking truth to power, we also see this reflected in brands acting in unprecedented ways. The former is driving the latter — consumers are increasingly comfortable wielding their power.
This age of activism is fuel to an evolving era of brand citizenship — the idea of advancing a business while also advancing society.
Driving this shift is access to data and transparency at levels never seen before. Consumers are also embracing social platforms so deeply, the tools have become an extension of their voice. This raises the bar for brands where ephemeral marketing isn’t enough — clever doesn’t win like it used to. Substance wins. We want to know why a brand exists and why they’re worthy of our time, money and identity.
This is all great news for brands at the front-end of this shift and mortally bad news for laggards.
Many are doing it right. For those at the early stages here are 5 things to remember to future-proof your brand in this age of activism.
1. Acknowledge The Cultural Shift
(And Admit It’s Not a Fad)
The rise of advocacy and activism we’re experiencing is not going away. When you ignore seismic shifts like this, your days as a brand are numbered. We’ve seen similar stories in business before — a large company or even an entire sector is caught off guard, ignores early signals of systemic change and then spends years or decades trying to catch up. Or worse, the change buries them. Think of software companies “missing the internet” or internet companies “missing mobile,” and being defined by how fast they could pivot to catch up. Many never did.
Most of the recent shifts at this scale were fueled by technology. This one is too. Access to information has directly influenced the rise of advocacy and activism and affected how we think, communicate, spend, vote, date, donate, share, etc. To ignore this shift and its magnitude is to put your brand and your company at risk.
2. Embrace the Opportunity to Become Part of a Person’s Identity
As first shared over 70 years ago in Psychological Review®, purpose is the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s the ultimate need humans seek to satisfy and that’s both an opportunity and a threat for brands today. Missing this point today is to cede market share to another brand that is putting purpose first. Zero-sum stats like “9 in 10 millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause” are increasingly being reflected in financial statements.
What does that mean? It means we are what we buy. Our consumer behavior is our behavior.
If a person sees themself as an environmentalist they know their purchases from REI or Whole Foods amplify their beliefs and define their identity. They know if they stray from living this purpose, they will get called out.
This offers brands an amazing brief — Stand for something. Give us something to attach our identity to. If you don’t, we’ll find a brand that will.
But be warned that faking it, is worse than staying silent (more on this later).
3. Get Off the Sidelines And Take A Stand
Actions speak louder than words. This truism applies to brands — we used to believe what they told us, now we trust what they do. The tip here is to get off the sidelines, build meaning and value in your brand by standing for something.
A few years ago the sidelines were the safe zone, but today consumers will punish brands they see as wishy-washy or complicit. An example of this can be found in the recent consumer-driven boycott of REI for selling brands that had links to the NRA. REI didn’t have links to the NRA, but that wasn’t enough. Consumers went up the supply chain. All brands should take notice of that activism as it was a step further than we’ve seen before. REI countered with the leadership move of announcing tough standards for all brands that want to be sold by them. It’s increasing actions like these that drive our behavior, our priorities and our spending.
So if you want consumers to assign a higher value to your brand, back your talk with action.
4. Lead By Being Proactive
Leadership is the art of motivating people to act towards achieving a goal. Similarly, brand citizenship leadership, is the practice of motivating consumers to act alongside the brand and together advance a shared belief or idea.
Embedded in the concept of leadership is innovation. Being proactive and doing something that hasn’t been done before.
This matters because we give credit to the innovators, not the followers.
Leadership is acknowledged when there is risk involved. A brand moves ahead when they understand there is vulnerability, and doing so offers a deeper, truer representation of what they believe, how they see themselves and how they want to be seen.
5. Build to Last
Real impact is built over time; it’s a by-product of long-term commitment.We respect our friend who shows up and volunteers more than the one that makes a donation online. Ultimately, we respect the friend who commits over the long term.
The same goes for brands. We respect brands that are serious in their commitment to advance an idea that advances society. Our BS-detectors are increasingly fine-tuned — we can quickly spot a fake and we’re very comfortable calling them out.
The opportunity for brands is to connect deeper into our everyday lives, to become more personal and more valuable to us. It’s then that it becomes an extension of our personal identity and as such earns our commercial support.
The opportunity is not for more corporate philanthropy or well-intentioned-do-goodery.
A message or activation on Earth Day does not make a brand environmentally relevant. Doing something on International Women’s Day no longer suggests a brand cares enough to advance gender parity. Opportunism is obvious to spot.
We’re in a new era for brands. It’s forming in real time and reflects the rise in advocacy and activism. To not embrace it, is to put your business at risk. To fully embrace it, is to define the next generation of global, leadership brands.
Join me at SB’18 Vancouver, June 4-7, 2018 to learn what does it take to future-proof a brand in this age of activism and how companies around the world are embedding “The Good Life” principles like transparency and purpose into their brands to grow their businesses in this new economy, and gain the tools to do the same for your brand.
By Jim Moriarty, Director of Brand Citizenship
May 17, 2018