Monday, 12 august 2019 | Redacción CEU
The secret to succeeding in a competitive market comes down to standing out from the competition. Over the course of history, brands have tried to distinguish themselves from others by following many strategies: competing in prices, coming up with catchy slogans, improving their customer services, developing new products, opening their businesses in key places, etc. However, this experience has helped them to understand that being different is not enough in itself to gain the trust of consumers. They also need to be relevant and important for them. This is one of the great reasons why brands no longer introduce themselves only as professional businesses, but as entities with their own values. Some of them even take sides on controversial issues or openly support social and political causes. Today, at The CEU IAM Business School, we analyze the keys to brand activism.
The rules of the market have changed. Brands no longer seek to attract customers' attention, but rather they want to connect with them, so they need to adopt a new approach. Thanks to the technological development, they now boast a higher level of personalization in messages, know their recipients better and have the tools to reach them in more intimate environments. However, in order to be able to connect with consumers, they cannot simply trust the delivery of a simple message, they have to go a step further.
Brands do not want to be considered only as a logo, a slogan or a product, they also want to be valued as an entity with a personality which you can trust and that has its own history. This ambitious goal leads them to turning out to be more and more human, by reproducing both our defects and virtues. That is the reason why many of them now want to give their opinion as well. This strategy's advantage: it has the power to influence. Its disadvantage: this is an initiative that also poses certain risks.
In recent decades, companies have shifted from being seen as economic players to being considered as important agents of change. People –especially the youngest generations– are increasingly aware of the important role played by companies in society. Consequently, they have begun to demand a greater level of involvement in the impact that firms have on the environment that surrounds them. In response to this request, and partly due to this interest in showing their values too, companies now adopt Corporate Social Responsibility policies. However, some of them are not satisfied just with this function, they believe they can play a more decisive role: supporting causes openly, expressing their opinion on political issues and, ultimately, being socially and politically more active.
This new approach of brands is known as brand activism, and we find more and more examples of it in important companies around the world: Gillette's campaign that explicitly supported the #metoo movement, the commitment of The Body Shop against animal testing in the production of cosmetic products, the defense of social and environmental causes of Ben & Jerry, Levi's fight against weapons, Nike's anti-racist campaign led by Kaepernick (the player who knelt while the national anthem was being played to protest against racial tensions in the US), etc. This phenomenon is so relevant that it already has a name: woke marketing.
In this context, a question arises: To what extent is it good for a brand to express its own opinion about a specific cause or policy? From an ethical point of view, whenever a cause is fair, seeks social welfare, does not pursue hidden interests, is not regressive and is conveyed in a public way, it should not be a problem. Nonetheless, that does not mean that its action will be effective. Of course, something that brands can never forget is the meaning of their claim:
A brand has to be really committed to a cause in order to do brand activism effectively. If its guiding values and basis are not in line with the principles or the causes it defends and only attempts to increase its benefits (a practice known as woke-washing), it will only end up losing consumers’ trust. Actually, its ambition may lead it to a serious reputational problem.
If a brand is not convinced or does not know how to execute an action, it should not act. In any case, it must reflect on it until it finds the right way to approach it. For example: in 2017, Pepsi cancelled an ad that, according to the brand, wanted to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. However, the people in social media accused the firm of using the symbols of the "Black Lives Matter" movement and of not understanding the contemporary American context.
You cannot support a cause half-heartedly, that is, you cannot use a topic to conduct a campaign and then not really work on the change (at least, to the extent possible). If a brand is boosting a campaign on environmental awareness while it is dumping wastes into the sea, it will not have any credibility. On the other hand, when a brand bets on corporate activism, it must be aware that not everybody will share its vision, especially when it gives its opinion about political issues. Some clients will trust this company more than ever, while others will give up. As the saying goes: "you can’t please everybody".
The CEU IAM Business School offers an International MBA which is fully adapted to the challenges that today's leaders have to face. It is a training program that takes place in three continents and which is aimed at boosting businesses in a global scenario that is constantly changing. This MBA is inspired by a deep sense of ethics and goes deep into key issues such as innovation, internationalization, social responsibility and the management of complexity. This program also includes the prestigious Leadership Essentials certification from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).