Global Marketing
Management Consultants
Global Marketing
Management Consultants
Global Marketing
Management Consultants

Beyond corporate purpose – why brands and organisations are embracing ‘activism’


This post is by Chris Arnold, a Doctor of Business and co-founder of CONNECT 2 (the UK’s leading business to community engagement marketing agency) and a specialist in communal economics. 

“Don’t drink stupid, drink committed,” was French cola brand, Mecca’s strapline.

Within two months, it had sold more than 2 million bottles and gained orders for more than 16 million bottles.

The core ethos of the brand was activism, encouraging consumers to use their consumption as a social tool for change.

The brand was sold as an alternative to big corporate brands Pepsi and Coke and was originally marketed at Muslims. It pledges to donate 10% of its profits to fund strictly humanitarian projects (such as schools) and another 10% to charities in the countries in which the drink is sold. It also discourages adding alcohol to it.

It has since changed its slogan to “Shake your Conscience.”

Can you imagine Pepsi or Coke doing that? Too risk-averse to embrace activism and too corporate to want to give 10% away?

With a growing number of consumer communities, united by a passion for good ethics, from exploitation to environmentalism (people and planet) there is now a new appetite for a more radical approach to corporate purpose, ‘brand activism’.

According to a Kantar study, 68% of US consumers expect brands to be clear about their values. To be brave, take a stance and take meaningful action. “It’s not just what you say but what you do.”

54% of consumers expect brands to take an active role in social conversations about key issues. Nike was one of the first brands to respond in support of Black Lives Matter followed by McDonald’s and Adidas.

Brand Activism

“But the rise of brand activism brings with it great risks as several brands like Pepsi (ref Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi TV ad) have discovered. Get it wrong and you pay a hefty price. Being a big brand can make you a target, not a partner, you can be seen as the problem, not the solution.”

Organisations promoting change have used marketing (rather than PR stunts and protests) very effectively. Sport England created the groundbreaking ‘This girl can’ campaign and adopted an activist approach, which challenged stereotypes and also created a powerful community. This has gone on to challenge the media and marketing industry to rethink its approach to how it represents women. Had it done a more traditional approach, it’s unlikely anything would have changed.

Staff activism

But big brands and retailers are also seeing their own staff becoming activists – Morrisons suffered a series of strikes because their own staff complained about the conditions on the factory farms that the chickens they sold had to suffer. The term ‘Frankenchickens’ made national headlines and consumers started to boycott Morrisons. Staff activism strikes at the heart of the business.

So you want to be an activist brand

The first question is how you define ‘activism”? Is it gluing yourself to the doors of a big corporate or the M25, closing a bridge with a boat while singing Kum-ba-ya, or working with your consumer communities to create change?

Lush, for example, has long been regarded as an activist brand, supporting a wide range of causes, but Body Shop (now owned by Brazilian cosmetics company Natura, not L’Oreal who sold it for £880m in 2017) has declared itself an ‘activist brand’. Is this a return to its roots, established by Anita Roddick? Or a bit of brand spin, created by the PR and marketing department to make it look cool?

Jigsaw, the fashion retailer, ran a bold campaign tackling a number of social issues including immigration. What it is to call yourself a British brand with such an ethically mixed society? “There’s no such thing as 100 per cent British,” read the headline on a poster.

There is no lack of brands offering us an alternative to large corporate bad brands and donating part of their profits to good causes. Plus there are still a few Quaker brands who have it built into their ethos.

There are many consumers communities who say they prefer the products they buy to reflect their social values, which is why so many brands dropped CSR for purpose. But leaping to being an ‘activism brand’ may be a title too far for many bigger brands, especially P&G and Unilever, who do a lot of good already.

Everyone believes GenZ and Millennials are more ethical but who is BooHoo’s number one customer? Some are questioning if this is an urban media myth. In reality, it is often the over 50’s that spend most on ethical products, mainly because, unlike Millennials (called the MeMeMe generation), they have both a sense of responsibility to others and the money to do so.

Are we becoming more vocal as a society? Demanding change? Yes.

Brand Activism

In the last 3 years, 20% of Americans have participated in some form of a political rally. There are growing communities on and offline driven by social purpose.

In the UK, campaigns like Extinction Rebellion have attracted a new breed of young ‘fashionable activists’ and ‘middle-class hypocritical hippies’ (as the Mail calls them). But united, they form a powerful force and a very loud voice.

More and more of us are taking action through boycotts and changing our habits and using the pound in our pockets not just to make a purchase but to make a real difference.

When oil companies (we know they are the biggest cause of climate damage) seek to become activists for environmentalism, you can’t help but think it’s hypocrisy.

The problem is, are the brands really committed or just chasing the customer by saying what they want to hear?

By contrast, many companies seem to be ignoring their customers while corporate coms and CSR drive their internal agenda and push marketing into marketing green and purpose-wash. A good example is NetZero claims. This is known as VALUES DISCONNECT when a brand is not aligning to the consumer’s values, which many aren’t.

“In this world of conscientious consumers, you cannot ‘sell’ your values to the consumer. You have to align your corporate values to theirs if you want to retain their loyalty.”

“Get purpose right and the brand gains a competitive edge, wins over new customers and creates loyalty. Get it wrong and it could hit you hard on the bottom line (and shareholders too). “

Read my thought pieces on PURPOSE here and here.

5 tips on becoming an activist brand:

Pick your battle/cause carefully.

This is a key strategic decision and should be done professionally, not a brainstorm in the office on a Tuesday afternoon. Think 5 years of commitment. Look at more than one cause. Does it align with your values, ethos, purpose? More importantly – does it align with your customer’s values?

Don’t jump on the latest trend.

Do a risk assessment. Think before you leap. Extinction Rebellion may seem trendy today but in 6 months it may well be hijacked by more radical extreme people and you’ll be criticised for supporting it. (Or may have become extinct itself from infighting.) Many brands jumped on the BLM cause – and cocked up big time. There are many charities and NGOs with a far better track record of responsibility and a history of making a real difference in the area of environmentalism, society, animal welfare and the many other areas you can consider.


Don’t go it alone, you are not a charity or NGO and it’s easy to look naive. People will trust you more if you work with an organisation who knows what it’s doing. (It also allows the brand to keep a safe distance if it all goes wrong.)

You need to connect with real communities.

Communities are highly influential in change – no great leader achieved change without a community behind them. Don’t just market at them via social media or advertising. Peer to peer, word of mouth in the real world. But understanding communities, defining the right ones (there are over 25 types) and identifying key influencers is not an easy task and needs specialists. Remember, online, most communities are connecting via dark social, from social local to platforms like WhatsApp. Offline, word of mouth is 10x more influential.

Budget sensibly and support it properly.

You are in it for the long term, not just the next quarter. One drink company spends in one year on social responsibility campaigns less than it spends in one day on its brands, so it’s no wonder consumers don’t see it as committed to ethical values.

Commit to doing it properly.

This is not a marketing spin exercise. Don’t blindly chase Millennials, over 50’s spend more on ethical brands! Don’t put the junior marketing manager, PR or the 23-year-old in the social media team on it. It should be overseen by senior people, experienced marketers and even the C-Suite. This is big stuff and it can affect the share price, so do it properly!

For more than 15 years TrinityP3 have been helping our clients address and solve challenges. So the question is how can we assist you?

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    Dr Chris Arnold is a Dr of Business (DBA) and is a member of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. He is the founder of Creative Orchestra (a specialist ethical brand and marketing agency) and CONNECT2 (specialist in community engagement). He was the Brand Republic blogger on ethical marketing and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer.

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