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Activism in marketing: a force or a fad?


Activism. Not only is it taking up our news spaces, but it’s now arguably gone ‘mainstream’ – permeating into our everyday culture and, most importantly for marketers, the way we buy. For once, this isn’t a top-down change but a grassroots movement that’s been born from the behaviours and spending habits of the consumers. Nowadays, technology means we’re more aware of the political and social climate and we have more access to information on the brands we know and love. As a result of this new found awareness, it’s been said that many consumers now expect the brands and companies they buy from to live up to a whole new level of political and moral standing.

It’s safe to say we’ve seen this shift reflected by brands – from becoming a lot more transparent in their processes and practices to full campaigns built around a political statement. But we’ve also seen a fair share of fails. So we thought it was time to take stock of this movement – is it just a fad, is it a bandwagon worth jumping on and how will it affect digital marketing long term?

Corporate Social Responsibility

The current call for brands which stand up for their morals and values has arguably evolved from Corporate Social Responsibility. There’s no denying that brands hold a lot of power when it comes to the shaping of our culture, how we think about ourselves and the world around us. CSR developed from the recognition that any major organisation – be it brands, publications, or a company – need to have processes in place to ensure that they’re using their influence wisely.

Whilst some argued that CSR was nothing more than a fad, it has now been written into the very fabric of corporate ways of working – and it’s most certainly here to stay. But what CSR represents is a more ‘passive’ sense of morality – a benchmark that brands and corporates are expected to comply with, rather than actively participate in.

Is activism just a millennial fad?

Despite it’s solid CSR foundations, this new level of brand activism is, like its predecessor, also being cast as a fad. Why? Because the consumer shift in attitude is often classed as a millennial one – the snowflake generation. But it’s by no means something to consider flippant. Whilst being young and active is a stereotype in itself, the reason Millennials and Generation Z have been leading the charge is arguably their unique sense of connectivity to each other and the wider world. They’ve grown up with not just the internet, but social media which encourages and facilitates collective action.

As a whole, we all have more access to information. Whilst older generations can more easily cast the internet aside, for those who have grown in parallel with it it’s not that simple. With an inability to escape what’s going on in the world, the youth of today are taking a wider, more holistic view of the world as we know it. And, as a result, they’re expecting brands to do the same. This heightened level of political and cultural awareness is something which will not only be passed down through generations but also has the potential to become more pronounced. Access to information will only increase, brands will have even fewer places to hide and, as a result, will have to carefully consider their future campaign messaging.

So what now?

Whilst some may frown upon the way brands are ‘jumping on ethical bandwagons’ – Pepsi’s dreadful attempt to capitalise on political protests is one example – some are really nailing it. How? They truly believe in the cause, rather than just profiting from it. Take the recent campaign by Brewdog to export Pink IPA to shop shelves: a take on their classic Punk IPA branded in a feminine shade of pink. Whilst this might automatically raise alarm bells and has accumulated its fair share of backlash, this controversial change is actually a satirical one to bring attention to the gender pay gap. Not only are 20% of their proceeds going to Women’s Engineering Society (WES), but they are also charging women 20% less than men to prove a point, because in their own words, ‘reality really is that harsh.’ As controversial and risky as it is, the point that Brewdog made is bold and honest – they don’t necessarily care what people think. They wanted to make a point about something they believe in, regardless of how it affects their sales.

In similarity, Nike wasn’t phased about potentially excluding a large part of their core demographic with their latest LDNR campaign– they wanted to represent the real London from the eyes of those who live in the city. Whilst this isn’t outwardly political, it represents a new level of cultural awareness that most big brands miss the mark on – accurately portraying those at the forefront of sports and, arguably our new moves towards a more progressive world.

Whether we like it or not, activism and morality are core aspects of the buying consideration process for current new generations and will most certainly play its part in those to come. Whilst we’re not saying that everyone should make a radical change to their marketing strategies, it’s definitely worth exploring what image your brand portrays in this sense. Activism to such an extreme degree as BrewDog won’t be a fit for every brand, but small steps towards transparency and clearly laying out your standpoint can all lend themselves to attracting altruistic thinkers.

Think your marketing strategy feels a little broken? Drop us a line, we’d be happy to chat.

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