What you need to know about brand activism

Brand activism is the term used when a brand looks to have an effect on a social, economic, environmental or political issue. It isn’t a new concept, however with the rise of conscious consumerism, companies are noticing that by stepping away from the fence, they can broaden their reach and drive sales.

A study by Edelman showed that, in 2017, 1 in 2 people were belief-driven buyers. This figure rose to 64% by 2018. Furthermore, 65% of surveyed consumers stated they had bought from a brand for the first time because of its position on a controversial issue and 64% said they would choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.

This shift in buyer focus is unsurprising, considering the rise of the digital era. In 2019, 67% of people use a mobile phone, 57% of people use the internet and 45% of people use social media.  With this brings the ability to become actively engaged in a wealth of societal issues and evolve a new generation of consumers who are more conscious of social issues, and who care more than ever about where their money is going.

Chris Daly, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Marketing told Futerra: “Historically, some marketers have focused solely on profit. But control has now shifted to consumers, who can swap suppliers more easily than ever. The landscape of transparency is moving control further into consumers’ hands.”

So, as the population is becoming more conscious of their spending, how can companies successfully use social mission to drive economic growth? According to the book ‘Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action’ by Christian Sarkar and Philip Kotler, businesses need to analyse their own core values and remain authentic throughout their activism to have a real influence on audiences.



Leader in brand activism, Patagonia, was making corporate donations to grassroots environmental groups as early as the 1970s. By 1988 they had initiated their first national environmental campaign to deurbanise the Yosemite Valley, and every year since, the brand has launched a large-scale educational campaign around a topical environmental issue.

“We’re losing the planet because of climate change, that’s the elephant in the room. Society is basically working on symptoms. Save the polar bear? If you want to save the polar bear, you got to save the planet,” company founder, Yvon Chouinard told Fast Company. “[…]I decided to make a very simple statement, because in reality, if we want to save the planet, every single company in the world has to do the same thing. And I thought, well, let’s be the first.”

This consistency of the brand’s values has helped drive sales over the years. In fact, when CEO Rose Marcario pledged to donate all of Patagonia’s 2016 black Friday profits to grassroots projects, the company raised $10 million and signed up 24,000 new customers.



Another long-standing activist company is global retailer Lush. Known as much for its campaigns for human and animal rights as its cruelty free beauty products, the brand has consistently proven its strong core values. In 2007 the company brought out its Charity Pot, with 100% of profits going to a range of grassroots charities that promote environmental protection and human and animal rights. In addition to this, they have introduced an activist hub to their website, with a range of information, advice and inspiration for people wanting to get more involved in issues they care about.

Lush Activist Toolkit Brand Activism

Lush’s investment in activism and its vocal backing of a plethora of campaigns have attracted a conscious consumer market, which increased profits by 70% in 2017, and the brand was voted the UK’s favourite high street store in 2018, according to Which.



Pepsi flopped in 2017 with an advert that was called “tone-deaf” across social media. Featuring model and media personality Kendall Jenner, the commercial shows her leaving a photoshoot to join a protest, which erupts into cheers after she hands an armed police officer a can of the sugary soft drink.

As soon as it was aired in April 2017, the advert sparked outrage amongst audiences with many criticising its propagation and exploitation of the Black Lives Matter protest at Baton Rouge. Voices included Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, and social media and digital media marketing strategist Karen Civil.

Pepsi quickly issued an apology and axed the advert, however YouGov statistics show that the harm had already been done, with brand buzz amongst millennials dropping considerably.

Pepsi Buzz Brand Activism

In contrast, sports brand Nike has been praised for its brand authenticity, following a string of pro-women campaigns.

In 2014, Nike opened a women’s only store in California, and in 2015 they introduced the Nike Women’s Event Series. At the beginning of the year, the brand announced 2019 was its year of the woman, partnering with Sport dans la Ville in Paris to train female coaches and engage girls through sports ranging from football to boxing and collaborating with Women Win and Gurls Talk to support rising female coaches. Nike is also leading a program to provide products such as the Nike Pro Hijab and Nike Classic Sports Bra to girls in need.



As we see larger demographics of consumer’s demanding change with their wallets, it will become easier for companies to take a stand on social issues whilst maintaining economic growth. In an interview with Marketing Journal, Unilever’s President Hanneke Faber said: “Brands with purpose grow faster than other brands.  We have plenty of internal evidence of that. 70% of our growth comes from brands that we define as purposeful.  The purpose-brands have grown 46% faster than the other brands over the past three years.

[…] We also find that when our people can link their personal activism to the company’s purpose, they are more engaged, more committed, do a better job, and stay the course.  We attract the best people in the market – we’re the no. 1 employer of choice in our industry in 44 countries around the world.

We’ve also saved money through waste and energy reduction.  We have to disconnect growth from our environmental footprint.  They don’t have to go up at the same rate.”


Take heed when considering incorporating brand activism into your marketing strategy. Gen Z are a socially conscious group but both they and millennials are aware now, more than ever, of when they’re being advertised to. Authenticity is crucial. If you want to know more about marketing to millennials, check out our blog where we share our top tips.


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