Brand Activism: How companies do it wrong

by | Mar 5, 2021

Aligning with the zeitgeist of the time can be hugely profitable for companies. But often brands get it wrong. They correctly identify a controversial issue that defines an era but fail to put out a message that resonates. In this article, we’ll have a look at a few spectacular fails and successes.

This has the potential to be somewhat controversial. So I want to be clear that I’m not commenting or passing judgement on the social causes themselves. I’m also not arguing that companies should become activist companies. Instead, I’m merely illustrating how brands try to capitalise on the causes and will draw conclusions from each case study.


Nike has controversy in its DNA


In 2018, Nike presented the world with an advert featuring Colin Kaepernick, the famous (and to some infamous) NFL athlete. Kaepernick kneeled at NFL matches when the US national anthem was being sung to call attention to the issues of racial inequality and police brutality.

Nike’s ad split many of its customers into two camps, with some celebrating the company where others were burning their shoes in protest.

Although this wasn’t clear to outsiders at the time (yours truly included), Nike understood the dynamics and risks very clearly. The company also knew exactly who its core customers were. The brand reported a 31% jump in sales in the aftermath of the ad. E-commerce sales immediately shot up by 25%. The campaign drew eyeballs, garnered lots of free media attention and drove sales.

In fact, what’s admirable about Nike is that it went about the whole campaign in an unapologetically brash tone. The company isn’t scared of offending people. It’s a stark contrast to many brands who try to toe the fine line between two camps. And it’s something that Nike has done before.

Over the past 35 years, Nike has taken stands against ageism, gender inequality in sport, disability discrimination and racism in sport. It’s safe to say that Nike is an expert in controversy. Controversy is in its DNA.


How not to do brand activism


Riding controversy successfully is hard. Really hard. There are many factors at play. So many movements, counter-movements, opinions that are involved. What may look good drawn up on a whiteboard can lead to a big sh*tfest when it actually airs in public.


During the BLM protests, Pepsi brought out an ad featuring Kendall Jenner drinking a Pepsi at the protests. The ad was carefully crafted to include many ethnicities and also showcased Pepsi as the unifying link between all protesting ethnicities and the police. In theory, it sounds like it should be a success. However, the following hilarious SNL comedy sketch does a good job of highlighting the ad’s issues. Pepsi didn’t want to offend anyone and in the process managed to ridicule itself. Not to mention the significant amount of people it angered by seemingly trivialising the protests.


Nike skirted many difficult issues (e.g. the police) when it aligned itself with BLM. Instead, its Kaepernick ad focused on a very personal but also universal message: stand up for your beliefs. It didn’t overly commercialise its message with overt branding unlike Pepsi, which plastered its logo all over the 3 minute ad.


Gillette is another brand that waded into murky waters in the wake of #MeToo with its recent “The Best Men Can Be” video highlighting toxic masculinity. The video hit a nerve. There are differing opinions on whether the ad missed its mark. YouTube likes and dislikes are skewed ⅔ towards dislikes. But those who dislike the campaign have differing views on why they dislike it. I thought this comment in Marketing Week nailed it:

“The message is clear, but the content belabours it to an extreme. Aligning toxicity with masculinity immediately connotes disease and implies that there is no degree of masculine behaviour we can celebrate in this era of #MeToo.
Rather than evoke shame, Gillette should fill viewers with hope; rather than a montage of impropriety, the brand should tell a simple but powerful story; rather than attack an identity, the campaign should fuel a desire for us all to contribute to being better.”

Nike’s Kaepernick ad is inspirational and hopeful where Gilette’s ad feels preachy. Commercially speaking, hope sells better too. In the three months that followed the campaign, Gillette sales were down. But the company blamed this on the prevalence and popularity of beards amongst men rather than the ad campaign. The men’s shaving market has been shrinking in the last couple of years, but this may also be a convenient hiding place for a misjudged ad campaign.


How to be a faceless brand


We’ve talked about big brand campaigns, but there are also smaller reactive ones. You see them when the gay pride festival comes up and rainbow flags wave in shop windows or logos are temporarily remade to reflect rainbow colours. To me these are the worst campaigns. They often seem hollow and don’t reflect a brand actually believing in a cause. I’ve struggled to put my finger on why this seems hollow.But I now think it’s because all these gestures seem so generic.

For a lot of these causes brands feel a ton of pressure to react. And it’s a tricky issue. I’ve personally not worked in a big brand’s PR or social media department, so I don’t truly know what it’s like to be on the inside. There probably is a very vocal minority of customers that push for these campaigns. And there probably are also internal stakeholders within the company (usually outside of the marketing department) who put pressure to “get a message out there”.

However, from a brand differentiation point, these reactions are halfhearted and paint many brands with the same brush. If a company truly believes in these causes, these moments present a chance to enhance the brand and make it stand out. Instead, we get a PR statement and a number of social media posts that look the same as the next brand. And that’s it. If you’re lucky these statements may come with a usually fairly trivial donation (as a percentage of revenue or profits). This really is a missed opportunity to actually contribute meaningfully to the cause and electrify your customer base.

I want to reiterate, it’s not about whether the cause is worthy, merely how genuine a brand can come across as and connect to its customers on that cause.

But where the vast majority of companies fail, they provide room for brands that do actually care and want to shine. I’ve written about this before: Knowing your customers is absolutely key in business. But especially so in brand building. Otherwise, your campaign and the social cause you push could end up in lost business by alienating your customer base.

Brands benefit from being a genuine first mover

Amongst many other reasons, brands appear genuine because they act independently of other brands. They are not following a trend and instead have been proactive about aiding their chosen cause.

Dove, for example, has been making statements about self-esteem and body confidence when few other brands in the consumer space were. The company has been advocating on this since 2004 and it still actively promotes this message today. It feels genuine because it’s proactive and the company seems to be walking the talk by using models of all shapes and sizes in its promotional material. Not just that but it stood up for women in a time period where the media was thriving of the destruction of women’s self-esteem.

Nike on the other hand has been called out for its hypocrisy on how few black people the company employs. Still, its controversial and first-mover marketing has given it a strong cushion to weather this criticism.

Proper brand activism in a nutshell


Deciding to link your brand to a cause is not for the faint-hearted. There are tremendous commercial benefits to getting this right. But it also comes with significant risks if you get it wrong. You need to do proper customer research and find out which causes your core customer group cares about. If you have a cause that you want to champion, here are my takeaways from the above cases you can apply to your business or brand:

  • Make sure that the cause fits your brand proposition and product. Do your customer research and see whether your proposed activity resonates with your core customers.​
  • Be bold. Move when no one else is to secure your first-mover advantage.​
  • Follow through with company policy on every facet of your cause. You don’t want to be labelled as a hypocrite. But don’t be afraid to offend. Your brand can’t stand out without offending someone, so long as it’s not your core customers you’re offending.​
  • Every cause has a negative undertone, acknowledge and engage with it but end your message with hope. After all, people love a happy ending.

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