Should Brands Take a Stand with Brand Activism?


2020 has presented organizations and their brand communications with a seemingly endless list of opportunities to make a statement or take a stance on social issues. 

But should they? 

More importantly, should YOUR brand become involved with social issues?

Black Lives Matter, gender equity, climate change, pandemic response—it’s been one serious topic after another. Then there are additional, still potentially divisive, topics such as acknowledging Pride celebrations and the Juneteenth holiday. Layer all of that on top of an already volatile presidential election year and well, wowza. It’s become a messaging minefield that’s difficult to navigate. 

So, how should brands react to these types of situations? Frankly, it’s a tough call. Knowing when, where, why, and how to use your organization’s voice, if at all, is difficult. At Olive & Company, we have some thoughts that might make your decision-making process a bit easier. 

What’s Your Brand’s Why?

Here’s a quick and easy litmus test. Why are you adding your brand’s voice to the conversation? 

Is it to boost sales, appease community pressure, support a cause, live up to a brand promise, win favor with a new audience, respond to customer requests or, well you get the idea. There are countless motivations that could serve as your why. But which one is yours? 

Why are you adding your brand’s voice to the conversation? 

It’s important for you to be honest and be complete when answering the question of why. Often, the why comes down to a combination of reasons. 

Maybe it is a genuine interest in supporting a cause as well as pressure from the community to use your platform. That’s okay, as long as you know what the motivations are behind the actions.

What’s dangerous, and in our opinion wrong, is claiming a purely altruistic reason when the reality is a financial one. In other words, if you’re taking a stand as a way to increase sales, DON’T. You run a high risk of getting exposed as a fraud and having the entire idea backfire on your brand. 

We advise you to always be honest about your why and stay true to your why. Further, make sure your why is first and foremost to respond to the situation or cause, rather than an attempt to capitalize on it. 

Stay in Your Lane or Use Your Platform for Brand Activism? 

When it comes to social topics and brand messaging, there are a lot of factors to consider.  Ultimately, your messaging strategy will typically fall into one of two directions. 

The first is the stay-in-your-lane approach. 

Beyond remaining neutral, this strategy purposely avoids acknowledging or discussing a social topic altogether. This can be supported by the idea that an organization only discusses themself, their products, and their industry. Do not confuse this as staying neutral, it isn’t.

Neutral is an intentional position and is usually stated as such. Not using a brand’s voice may be construed as acceptance/agreement with the status quo. This is very different from neutral. 

The other common strategy is the belief that organizations should use their brand’s megaphone to support change in the community. This is typically rooted in the idea that it is everyone’s duty, especially organizations, to do what is right and be an asset to society wherever they can.

Which is right? Is either direction wrong? This depends on who you ask. Or more accurately, perhaps it depends on which “right” you’re asking about. Ethically right? Legally right? Economically right? Then layer in what happens when your audience doesn’t agree with a stance. As former Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan once quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” 

He said this when asked why he didn’t openly support North Carolina Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, who was hoping to become the south’s first black senator since Reconstruction. And he had a point. Was Jordan wrong to put business objectives before political action? It’s an open debate. But, if we had access to it, the Nike brand platform might provide a valuable perspective. 

A brand platform, especially the section on values, often exists to inform these moments. 

Let’s explore that idea. 

Using Your Brand Platform as a Compass 

Different brands stand for different things. Some are overt in their desire to improve the world, shape communities, and fight for social justice. Others are intentionally devoid of anything that goes beyond the scope and offering of their organization. 

Guess what, both approaches can be right.

If an organization’s brand is built upon a foundational pier of social improvement, it had better use its voice for social topics. Does this mean they need to take a stand on every issue? No, that’s an impossible task. But they must fight the good fight when it presents itself. These brands can’t let a big topic slide by because it’s too tough or controversial. They are brand-bound to be part of the conversation.

If an organization’s brand is built upon a foundational pier of social improvement, it had better use its voice for social topics.

When a brand promises to be a leader, an engine, an instrument for good in the community, it must tackle societal issues. Not because it will boost the bottom line, but because it meets a critical aspect of the organization’s brand platform. This is especially important to remember when it comes to budget allocation. For these organizations and companies, brand activism is not a marketing cost, it is a societal investment and must be viewed beyond the ROI in terms of dollars.

Some companies, like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, built their success on being a progressive advocate for societal issues. And while the company has come under some scrutiny since Unilever took over in 2000, even today Ben & Jerry’s uses brand activism. See the bold stance they took on the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. In fact, it is arguable that without this ambition to meld social topics into their brand, Ben & Jerry’s might have stayed a local ice cream maker. But they aren’t. They used a brand position of social action to be a differentiator. Their success was as much about their brand intentions as their products. 

Now, if your brand is not built upon social action is it okay to stay silent? Likely yes. 

It can be awkward when a brand that’s never made any type of communications regarding a social topic suddenly sends out an email commenting on an issue. It’s not what customers expect, or perhaps want. 

Does this mean a brand can’t decide to take a position if they have not done so before? Not at all. But it is critically important to make sure the communication is not a reflex. It must be an intentional migration of, or new implementation of, the brand platform. 

Quite often, the people most impacted by an organization’s stance on a social topic is not the customer, it’s the people who work for it. 

Also, in smaller companies, make sure this is a company action and not a personal choice by the owner. This division of the person from the brand can be tricky (even for large companies) and needs to be clarified. 

In some cases, the owner or leader of a company has a public persona, opinions, and charisma that can become confused with the brand, or worse, overshadow the brand. But it is possible to have a company brand and for a principle to have their own brand or reputation.

Look no further than Whole Foods CEO and founder John Mackey. While his company is supported by liberal-leaning customers, he himself is a free market libertarian and strongly anti-union. So yes, a business owner can maintain and even espouse personal values that may not be the same as the brand values. 

If an organization does decide to make a statement or take a stance on a social issue for the first time, discuss why now, and what this will mean for the next time. Are social topics going to be an ongoing part of your brand platform? All topics, some topics? It’s smart to establish these guidelines first. If the organization speaks out this time, but not the next, what does that mean and look like to the audience? 

Further, don’t limit brand actions on social topics to emails, social media posts, and other comments. Make them part of the organization’s charitable giving program or volunteer efforts. Otherwise, the message can come off as a marketing tactic rather than a deeply held position. 

The Audience Inside Your Walls

Quite often, the people most impacted by an organization’s stance on a social topic is not the customer, it’s the people who work for it. 

You can build stronger allegiances with team members by taking public stances on issues that are important to them, especially if they are directly impacted. For example, members of the LGBTQ community were likely proud to work for employers who supported same-sex marriage before it was protected by the United States Supreme Court. 

Similarly, women can feel supported when their employers take public stances and make operational changes to foster gender equity in the workplace. 

June 2020 was pivotal for many in the Black community as Target Corporation and other companies officially declared Juneteenth would be a recognized company holiday

These are big moments and meaningful actions. 

Brand stewards should also consider that social topic stances can be valued by those who are not directly affected. A person doesn’t need to be LGBTQ, female, or Black to be proud of these stances. They are also attractive to potential employees of any race, gender, orientation, religion, or background.

But beware, there can be a downside.

What about the team members who do not share these views? Might you lose a great employee or create some level of dissonance? Yes, it’s foolish to think otherwise. That’s why it’s important that these stances are not made on a whim. They must be connected to the organization’s brand, culture, and environment. People may choose to leave or not apply because of a brand’s stance on social topics. This is always going to be the case no matter what you do, or do not do. You have likely lost employees or candidates for not taking stances at some point. So, realistically, a brand is always damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. This should not scare you. 

Ultimately what matters is making sure the position taken aligns with the brand the organization is trying to build/maintain. A position can’t be right for everyone, but it can be true to the brand.

 Your objective is simple. Always be true to the brand. 

Put Your Brand Values To Work

We can all do better when it comes to melding a brand with social issues. Ourselves included. We’re frequently guilty of looking after our clients’ brands and communications more diligently than our own. 

We will get better at this. In doing so, we will continue to help our clients get better too. 

A great place to begin is with the brand platform. Do you have one? You can’t use it to guide messaging decisions unless it’s in place. If you do have one, what does it say? Just as important, are you staying true to the promises, values, and vision that are laid out in the brand platform?

Societal issues provide a reason to reflect on how well an organization’s brand beliefs and intentions match their actions and messages. Societal issues are a litmus test that can reveal how deeply held and accurate brand values and beliefs are. Often, it’s the challenging moments that strengthen brand beliefs—or cause brand stewards to re-adjust them. 

Social topics will continue to change society. A brand is no different. It is being changed too. Either in how it’s perceived, how it works, or what it espouses. Olive & Company would welcome the opportunity to discuss your brand values and how they intersect with social topics right now. Together we can test ideas, challenge values, and see if the brand platform fits the times. 

If you’d like to learn more about how we use analysis, strategy, and creative work to balance brand communications with social topics, let us know. Olive is always here to field your calls, tackle your questions, and improve your understanding.

Let’s connect and make sure your brand aligns with the times. 

Dave Hruby

Dave Hruby

Dave Hruby is brand strategist, writer, thinker, maker, and doer that challenges the status quo, shares wisdom freely, and happily asks tough questions to arrive at better than expected outcomes.