Brand Activism: Fumble or Touchdown?

Feb 10

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few days about this year’s Super Bowl ads. Many have been cheering on the brands that are taking a stand on issues, while others have criticized companies for their points of view or for not being authentic. From the emotional, riveting story told by 84 Lumber, to the powerful statement by Airbnb, to Audi’s position on the gender wage gap, these ads reflect a growing trend of activism in advertising, with brands tackling the pressing issues of the day.

Beyond ads, as this recent article in The Guardian points out, companies also are taking actions toward social responsibility (e.g., Starbucks’ promise to hire 10,000 refugees, Airbnb providing free accommodation to those affected by the travel ban) – yet only if consumers know about it. As the author points out, activism sells, and brands know it.

In today’s politically charged environment, this activism by brands raises questions among consumers that marketers need to be prepared to answer: what is the underlying motivation, does it feel genuine, and is it enough (is it all talk and no action)? And for the more cynical among us, do these strong statements by brands, and our subsequent desire to support that, make us feel like we’ve taken action when we haven’t actually done anything at all?

Ogilvy’s own Chris Graves flags key considerations for companies taking on a social cause, such as looking at their own track record of hard work “that makes [their] position natural, not a cynical cause du jour.” For example, Audi received a lot of criticism for making such a strong statement on gender equality while the company has no women on its six-person executive team. Drexel University’s Daniel Korschun reports on research that explains why ads like this may fall flat: what seems to be important to consumers is whether or not a brand behaves consistently with its purported values, as opposed to what the values are. If a company boldly takes a stand on an issue, but then doesn’t live up to that promise by either changing its stance or not speaking up at all when the issue comes into the public discourse, that is when consumers start to question the company’s authenticity.

At Ogilvy, we applaud corporate efforts to support social causes, and suggest five key guideposts for companies to consider:

1. Alignment. Companies should give careful consideration to whether the social issue or cultural tension they are trying to address actually aligns with their Brand Self – those attributes and actions that the company currently adheres to or aspires to.

2. Authenticity. Does the company have a full program behind the issue they are speaking out on? Are they prepared to not only take a strong stance but also put resources into initiatives that help educate and change societal behaviors, and/or shift business practices to make a real impact?

3. Depth. Has the company considered how to enlist its customers, employees, and other key constituents in the cause?

4. Messaging. Are the company’s creative materials and assets being produced in a culturally, emotionally, and linguistically appropriate manner?

5. Measurement. Has the company considered the important role of measurement? What monitoring and evaluation plans are in place to determine the success of the effort and/or help optimize the effort for the future?

It would be interesting to know how rigorously marketing managers considered factors like these when developing these types of ads, and what plans companies may be considering now in the face of the resulting fodder around such bold displays of brand activism during Super Bowl 51.

Overall, when designed well and implemented properly, social purpose efforts can generate meaningful benefits for companies and their customers, as well as society at large.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 10th, 2017 at 3:01 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Best Practices, Corporate Social Responsibility, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Brand Activism: Fumble or Touchdown?”

  1. Ruchika says:

    This is so timely and well thought out! Brands know they can’t afford not to talk the talk (hence the increased activism we’re seeing on our TV screens, in conversations about diversity and inclusion, etc.). Hopefully thought pieces like this one will push brands to take the extra step and follow through with action.

  2. Junia Geisler says:

    I find it fascinating that the 84 Lumber ad played to liberal hearts and minds, yet the owner of the company has openly discussed her endorsement of Trump and supports the U.S.-Mexico border wall. I wonder how trying to play both sides of the issue resonates with customers!

  3. Natalie Adler says:

    Great article. Interested in seeing how companies such as those discussed here will continue to show action and leadership on these issues.

  4. Khaled Omer says:

    The article highlightend profound thoughts here! It is great to witness the growing trend of activism in advertising and that brands take it serious. Out of those valuable five key guideposts, in my opinion, for companies efforts to support social causes to consider is “authenticity”, since it reinforces and affects the other four keys.