Brand Activism - Does It Work?
With all that is happening in the world, including the murder of George Floyd in the USA, I couldn’t help but ask the question; does activism have a place in business? And if it does, what are the strategic steps that companies and individuals need to take to ensure they are getting it right?
To address these questions I undertook an Instagram Live on 1st June 2020 with Sophie Medd, Director of Fundraising for Business in the Community, Dee Springer, former CEO of LVSE and Kwame Badu, Founder of KB Consulting. Here are the take-aways from that conversation:
The definition of corporate or organisational activism is; a public stance taken by a company to positively impact social change or legislation. Corporates and organisations undertake two types of action, lobbying governments on matters pertaining to their business and or taking a public stance on social issues. It is the actions of owners and leadership within organisations who use their position and influential power (personal social influence) to support a particular cause to evoke change.
Examples of this can be seen when Nike featured Colin Kaepernick in their “Believe in Something. Even If It Means Sacrificing Everything’ campaign; Starbucks ‘Race Together’ initiative driven by CEO Howard Schultz; Sheryl Sandberg ‘Lean In’ initiative; and Heinken’s ‘Worlds Apart’ ad, which challenged Brits to break down barriers and find common ground with others who have opposing views.
But to be effective and therefore authentic, businesses need to ensure they are not ‘purpose washing’ or ‘jumping on the band wagon’ of a cause that appears popular and trendy. As stated by Kwame Badu “Companies need to avoid putting out flippant statements that fail to be embedded in the actions, policies or infrastructure of their business.” Before chasing headlines, CEO’s and the wider leadership team should ask themselves - are our actions in the business, reflective of our statement? Do we have a diverse team that can lean their voice to the nuance of this cause? How do we go beyond purpose marketing and embed activism within our business from the way we recruit staff, operate within our supply chain, and deliver our products and services?
It is not an easy thing to address, but here are some strategic steps to explore before doing it. Business owners and leader need to :
Align Values - start by becoming clear about your values and principles and why they mean something to you in your personal and business lives. Think about the key social issues you care about and how it fits or does not fit with your stated corporate values. Involve senior colleagues, groups of workers and, if you are a sole trader, your friends and influencers in discussions around your values and principles and the causes you want to be associated with.
Be Authentic - Think about the actions the organisation needs to take to demonstrate your authentic commitment to the cause or causes. Address the actions the organisation needs to take to embed your values into the organisation and to how the organisation functions and demonstrates its commitment to the social issue. As stated by Sophie Medd “If you put out an ad campaign that supports climate change, you need to consider how often your leadership team are flying around the world creating a carbon footprint, or what your policies are on recycling within the business.”
Know the Law - get to understand the legal framework of how activism can and cannot be embedded into your organisation. If you do not have a legal team within your business or you are a SME with limited budgets, you could partner with a law centre, or NGO that specialises in the issue you want to align your business with, to help you understand how to bring about change that will not adversely impact on your business. As stated by Dee Springer “there are both legislation and caselaw frameworks that you need to be aware of when embarking on organisational activism.”
Understand the Complexities - team up with a charity or not-for-profit organisation, work with them to understand the complexities that exist surround the issues you are compassionate about. By doing so, it enables you to identify which area, within the cause, you want to channel your activism. Through the awareness of intersectionality, you can focus your attention and define your area of impact.
Create Power Blocks - do not try and do it on your own, instead work with people of influence, people of extensive knowledge in the area - staff, colleagues, board members, associates, partners, consumers - ensuring you come together with aligned values and share a commonality in what your trying to achieve. By doing so you can leverage your personal and economic power/influence to bring about real and sustainable change.
Take a Calculated Risk - be strategic in your approach and identify the potential risks. Undertake your research so that you are clear about the factors that will impact your ability to aid the facilitation of change. Anticipate mistakes and put in place feedback facilities so that you can quickly respond. Consistently evaluate the variable outcomes. Broaden your stake-holder involvement and seek advice from both junior and senior staff members across diverse backgrounds, to bring fresh thinking and a diverse prospective to how this could impact and be embedded into your business.
Always do it to Empower Others, Not Yourself! Remember that business activism around social change is not about gaining press coverage or increasing profits. Whilst effective outcomes will do this, the impetus should be influencing change for your wider community and world at large. It should be a genuine and authentic extension of the company culture and business values and when done right, it should motivate your tribe to galvanise behind you.
I personally think that activism does have a place in business. It helps to attract talent, attract partnerships, attract investment and attract sales. When done well, it is social capitalism at its best. But it requires much more than just one off statements or letters of support. Whilst these things are a wonderful start, they are exactly that, a start. For it work be sustainable, it requires real commitment from the top down to infuse the essence of the cause into every facet of the organisation. It is a powerful way to channel anger, hurt and frustration. It empowers every part of the organisation to do their part in making right, some of the horrible injustices of this world. As summarised by Dee Springer “Think with your head, not your hurt, anger or hate. This positive force will empower you and your team to make change” and as concluded by Sophie Medd “It is not a fluffy area… but it is worth it.”