The Do’s and Don’ts of Brand Activism: Where Is The Line?

Josh Lomax
April 14, 2022

The Do’s and Don’ts of Brand Activism: Where Is The Line?

Brand activism is one of those topics that you either willingly embrace and encourage or you vehemently oppose and want nothing to do with. Neither of these approaches are right and neither are wrong. This begs the question then, where is the line with brand activism? 

This topic was brought to our attention recently as Ben & Jerry’s announced that they will end sales of their product in Israeli occupied Palestinian territory. An extremely bold move which divided consumers across the board.

It’s certainly one of the more daring examples of brand activity. To say it kicked up a fuss would be a massive understatement. 

Nevertheless, it arguably worked for them. They trended top across multiple platforms, were being spoken about by mainstream media outlets and being praised by many for their bold stance.

Obviously this also came with consequences. They were ‘warned’ by the Israeli Prime Minister, they were labelled anti-Semitic and they clashed with their parent company Unilever.

When asked, Ben & Jerry’s simply said that selling in occupied Palestinian territories was “inconsistent with its values”. 

Now, Ben & Jerry’s has a history of fighting social injustice. They strongly support the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ rights and electoral campaign finance reform. 

It may not come as a surprise then that they spoke out about the Israeli Palestinian conflict but regardless it was a risky move.

That brings us onto what this article is all about - brand activism.

Where exactly is the line?

Did Ben & Jerry’s, whether you consider them right or wrong in this situation, cross the line?

I suppose only you can really answer that.

It does raise the question though, how should we as business and brand owners approach brand activism?

Do you speak out on social issues? Do you lean in a particular direction? Or do you just do nothing and carry on as usual?

In this era of social media that we live in, opinions are rife and social issues are aplenty. It can be very difficult with brands and businesses to find the right balance.

So, again, where is the line here?

DON’T: Completely shy away from social and political issues

Let’s make it clear that not speaking out on political and social issues is absolutely fine. It is in no means “wrong” to not take a stance and you certainly shouldn’t do it just for the sake of it. 

With that being said however, it is better to address social issues than just turn a blind eye to them. 

Times have changed and what was once a big no no, has become almost expected. 

That’s right, consumers actually expect to see brands talking about social and political issues now. According to a study conducted by Sprout Social’s #BrandsGetReal, as many as 70% of consumers expect brands to take a stand on social and political issues. 

It can’t really be denied that it is becoming a lot more popular for brands to get behind social causes. With younger audiences being increasingly upfront about their political stances, many brands are seizing the opportunity to align themselves with their target consumer. 

A word to the wise here - there’s a difference between being political about an issue and actually fighting social injustice. Like we spoke about earlier with Ben & Jerry’s supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and encouraging LGBTQ+ rights. That’s not being political, that’s fighting for human rights.

DO: Act!

This leads on from our last point.

You’ve got to act!

The worst thing you can do above everything else is say you’re going to do something and then not do it. It reeks of manipulation and distrust.

That means that if you say you’re going to do something, you must make sure you absolutely commit to it. 

Acting upon something doesn’t have to just mean financially either. It can be your time, your work, your efforts - there’s plenty of ways to help a cause that don’t include spending money.

False promises will completely tarnish your brand reputation.

DON’T: Commercialise a crisis

This one sounds obvious but it’s been done before.

You should never try to commercialise a crisis.

Brand activism 101.

There are plenty of examples of this but the most notable has to be Pepsi’s 2017 ad that misfired completely. Pepsi were attempting to showcase peace and unity in a contemporary ad that featured protesting citizens and police. What actually transpired was an ad that ‘trivialises the urgency of the issues’ and ‘diminishes the seriousness and gravity’ of why there were protests in the first place.

To put it simply, it was a very bad idea.

That’s the whole point here - don’t try to benefit in any way from a crisis.

It looks bad, it sounds bad, it is bad.

The better approach is to respond to less serious situations with socially conscious content. We’re talking political controversies, competitor blunders and pretty much anything that isn’t that serious. Brands do this all the time across their social media platforms and more often than not, it works really well for them.

You can get it wrong here as well but it’s usually not that much of a big deal as the initial issue was never that serious to begin with.

DO: Focus on issues that align with your brand

When it comes to brand activism, you want to focus on issues that mean something to your brand.

What social or political issues are aligned with your brand you ask? Well only you will really know the answer to that.

You just have to think about your brand and what potential impact and influence it has on the wider world. 

For instance, a producer of vegan food products has every reason to get behind animal welfare rights just like a hiking clothing label has every reason to fight climate change. It makes perfect sense.

If your company doesn’t immediately lend itself to a social cause like the ones above, it’s usually not that difficult to choose one that works in some way. 

We run a video production company and have made a monthly pledge to Ecologi to help combat climate change. Our thought behind backing this is that not only do we care about the environment as individuals, but we also want to reduce our carbon footprint seeing as we spend a lot of our time travelling. 

It’s affordable, it makes sense and we’re genuinely passionate about the cause.

As a final word here, we’d urge you to not worry so much about “getting political”. One of the biggest reasons brands put off speaking out about certain issues is that they see it as controversial. Well, that really doesn’t have to be the case. 

Once your brand is aligned with a cause, you’d be surprised at how positive the response from your consumers can be.

DON’T: Engage with needless call-outs

We touched on this earlier but it’s worth mentioning again.

Don’t engage with needless call-outs or waste time with trolls.

Unfortunately, when you stand for something you’re guaranteed to have at least one person who will completely disagree with you.

That’s fine. 

Holding different opinions and points of view is what makes us so diverse and interesting. We can have insightful and thought provoking conversations that can lead to inspiring conclusions and that’s great.

What we also get however, is a lot of negativity, profanity and outright trolling. This is where the line is crossed by many.

The one thing you don’t want to do when you’re speaking on behalf of a brand is to react to them. 

First, because that’s what trolls want. They will say the most outrageous and down-right offensive things all in hopes of provoking a reaction. 

Second, because it’s never a good look for your brand. If you get into a slogging match online with some random account who has 3 followers, it shows you’ve lost control. Whatever brand reputation you’ve tried to build can be destroyed over one exchange. Avoid at all costs.

The best way to approach any needless call-out or troll is to simply ignore them. If you can’t do that then block them.

DO: Look to the future

Once you’ve aligned yourself with a cause or social issue, do what all activists do - keep pushing.

Celebrate your wins and reference the past but never dwell on it. People are often looking for missteps and contradictions so keep yourself aligned and focused on the cause. Avoid being wishy washy and keep your message clear and consistent.

Put a long-term strategy in place for the future and brand guidelines for how you and your team will address matters going forward. If anything does go wrong at any point, try not to worry too much. You can begin thinking about damage control measures long before any missteps so you’ll be ready for any potential blunders. 

Once you’ve done that, it’s really up to you with how you proceed. You can increase your efforts if you wish to do so or you can just remain consistent with your current strategy. 

No matter what route you take, just keep pushing and look positively toward the future.

That’s all there is to it!

Final Thoughts

The best way to break down brand activism is to have balance. Sure, speak out on social issues that you care about and align with your company ethos, but don’t become confrontational.

It’s good to show political awareness as a brand but you want to avoid alienating your consumer at all costs. That’s when the line is crossed.

We’ve already mentioned that we have partnered with Ecologi to donate monthly to combat climate change. We create videos about saving the planet, we write articles about the environment and we post content aimed at getting people environmentally friendly, but we’re not going to get into fisticuffs with someone if they pull out a plastic drink bottle next to us.

Now that would be crossing the line.