A few years ago, it was brand suicide to align yourself openly with a political or social justice cause. Now, everyone’s at it. But why? Doing it successfully is harder than it looks, too. And as Ian Hsieh discovers, the stakes have never been higher.

“There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do,” voices Emma Thompson over a black-and-white scene in which a tiny orangutan watches in horror as his home is razed to the ground. “He destroyed all of our trees for your food and your shampoo. There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do. He took away my mother and I’m scared he’ll take me too.” 

This is the full on, weep-your-face-off centrepiece of Iceland’s Christmas campaign this year. A heart-breaking animation that spotlights the issues surrounding the production of palm oil – something the discount supermarket has pledged to remove from all its own-brand foods by the end of 2018. But there’s just one problem: the ad never made it to our TVs. In November, Clearcast considered the animation – originally a Greenpeace production – in breach of rules banning political advertising. And so the only place you can watch it is online. 

But that’s not to say it’s had any less impact. Garnering over 30 million views across social media to date – and with celebrities like James Corden voicing his disapproval of the Clearcast decision to his 10.3 million followers – Twitter detonated with over 100,000 different posts expressing disbelief at the situation. And 700,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking Clearcast to reverse its decision. The industry body was even forced to shut its switchboard and take down its Facebook page due to the sheer amount of vitriol it was attracting. Iceland may be feeling pretty chuffed despite plan A not going to, well, plan. 

One thing’s clear: consumers today are more socially, culturally, politically and environmentally aware than ever before. In fact, a recent survey of 30,000 people by Accenture Strategy has found that 62% of shoppers around the world want companies to take a stand – with two-thirds saying that the actions of company leaders affect their buying decisions. It’s something that brands from Airbnb, to Pepsi, to Dove, to Nike have taken to heart – some arguably better than others. But why is this the case? And does that mean you should be leaping off that fence you’re perching on right now to blow the trumpet for your cause of choice?

The world in the palm of your hand

“The world is getting smaller, which means you’re getting more frequent conversations, louder voices, and being exposed to a lot more than you’re used to,” says Felipe Thomaz, associate professor of marketing at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. “Everything that we see around the world today is tied together. The frequency of communication, the immediate channels, the news cycle – all of that forms a media environment that allows certain types of conversations and human connections to flourish.”

With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why younger people are more woke. With access to a slew of social platforms – and a 24-hour news cycle – how could they not be? From the environment and gender equality, to diversity and gun control, Gens Y and Z (in particular) don’t shy away from sharing their views on political and social justice issues. Arguably, the current state of world affairs has a fair part to play, too; with Donald Trump’s election win and Britain’s decision to leave the EU both incendiary catalysts for building frustration.

Teen Vogue is capitalizing on the fact that teenage digital natives are just as likely to take an interest in social issues as their parents are, and just as eager to read and share stories that speak to their own worries with the world. With stories ranging from what it means to be a Muslim woman in a Trump presidency, to why Mike Pence’s record on women’s and LGBTQ rights should be cause for concern, some have even commented that the magazine is doing a better job of covering critical news stories than legacy titles. “Media: white supremacists dress nice now. Teen Vogue: Trump is destroying democracy,” tweeted The Ringer writer Jason Concepcion.

According to Thomaz, it’s not necessarily just a younger generation thing, it’s a emotional evolution. “There’s a shift in mentality,” he says. “People going to work, they want to work for companies they believe in – which might be because of the amount of time they spend at work as opposed to with friends and so on. And you’re going from the worry of business being about production and efficiencies to satisfy the financial system – specifically the owners of the company – to more recently the worries of understanding the market and making sure that consumers are satisfied.”  

“There’s a shift in mentality. People want to work for companies they believe in. And you’re going from the worry of business being about satisfying the owners of the company, to making sure that consumers are satisfied.”

Felipe Thomaz, Saïd Business School, Oxford University

Values maketh the brand 

Whether you know it or not, the things we buy tell the world a lot about who we are. “We use brands to say something about ourselves – you can go back to the older commercials of Mac versus PC, who’s cool and who isn’t,” says Thomaz. “The things you wear are information to others about yourself. That has always been the case, but now that takes a political tinge – what you support, where you shop, how you buy it. Politics has become a brand differentiator so you can make the statement you want to, even politically, via consumption.”

For younger consumers, this is the heart of the matter. According to The Human Project, a global survey conducted by Zeno Group, Gen Zers are passionate about brands that help to enhance and build upon their own, personal brand. “There has never been a youth generation that looks and acts like this one, and that wield more influence,” says Therese Caruso, Zeno’s managing director of global strategy and insights. “They are shaping the global conversation […] The only way for brands to connect is to act like a best friend – the values young people assign to their deepest relationships are the same values they want to see in brands.”

A prime example of a brand getting it just right is Airbnb. Back in January 2017, Donald Trump’s travel ban left the world gobsmacked. And a mere month later, Airbnb reacted with a campaign that aired at Super Bowl LII, titled ‘We Accept’. 

It also pledged to contribute $4 million over four years to the International Rescue Committee to support the most critical needs of displaced populations globally. A balls-out retort aimed squarely at the most powerful man in the world, the campaign’s results speak for themselves. 87 million earned impressions. The most used advertiser hashtag during the Super Bowl – generating over 33,000 tweets during the first half of the game, most of them overwhelmingly positive. 90,000 shares on Facebook and Instagram, with over 500,000 likes. Perhaps more importantly, 15,400 volunteer hosts signed up to help with the brand’s call to action to open homes up to displaced populations.  

The campaign worked because it was completely in line with Airbnb’s founding mission: that you can feel at home anywhere in the world. “To me, it makes sense for a brand to express its beliefs when it’s part of the design of the company,” says Thomaz. “If it’s a core belief, like you started your for-profit company but ultimately your mission has always been to save the environment or be proactive towards animal rights – and your entire business method, structure and operation is tuned to that concept – then you’re actually making a legitimate claim.”  

“There has never been a youth generation that wield more influence. The only way for brands to connect is to act like a best friend – the values young people assign to their deepest relationships are the same values they want to see in brands.”

Therese Caruso, Zeno Group

Be true to you

It’s a fine line to tread, though. Even a brand like Nike can’t jump into the choppy waters of activism without a corner of the internet blowing up. By choosing Colin Kaepernick – the NFL quarterback that protested against racial injustice and police brutality by ‘taking a knee’ during the US national anthem – as the face of its 30 years of ‘Just Do It’ campaign, the sports giant was accused of being unpatriotic. Once-loyal fans set their Nike shoes ablaze and threatened a boycott.

Nike’s critics brushed the campaign off as ‘woke washing’ – taking advantage of Kaepernick’s situation to benefit its own bottom line. It’s a fair point considering the claims of wage theft, verbal abuse and unbearably hot working conditions in one of its Vietnam factories. On the flipside however, the brand has championed an inclusive and respectful company culture – with particular emphasis on gender equality – which makes its true intentions a little harder to read. Whatever Nike’s motives, the incendiary campaign worked; online sales jumped 32% in the 27 days following, and the ad has earned the Swoosh a cool $6 billion.  

If you’re picking up that picket sign and heading for the door – wait. While all signs point to the advantages of expressing your political views, Thomaz has a checklist, if you will, to make sure you don’t end up with a Pepsi-like SNAFU. “First, look internally and ask, ‘Is that core to who I am, what I do and how I function – do I have a legitimate claim over it?’” he says. “After that, look at your consumer base – are they in agreement, do they believe it’s a valuable proposition and are they willing to choose you over somebody else because you share that commonality? Then, ask yourself if you’re comfortable to exist and share your opinions within an ethical, moral set of guidelines.” 

Successfully tick off each point, and your business is safe. You have that “legitimate claim” over your respective point of view, so get out there and take that stand. Brands like Patagonia – with its long history of social responsibility and, most recently, the open endorsement of two US Senate candidates in October – are a good example of this. It’s all part of the company’s DNA. Elsewhere, Finisterre actively pushes a sustainability message – something it’s been dedicated to since its inception. Earning B Corp status has just cemented the brand’s position further. 

“Look internally and ask, ‘Is that core to who I am, what I do and how I function – do I have a legitimate claim over it?”

Felipe Thomaz, Saïd Business School, Oxford University

Want to preach diversity, but your leadership is all white, middle-aged and male? It’s probably best to stay away from the soapbox. After all, there’s a very real chance you’ll come across disingenuous and, frankly, silly. While the Accenture Strategy report suggests you’ll repel shoppers by being silent, that beats losing your whole customer base through lack of trust. 

“One of the largest sources of strength in a marketing or branding campaign – and the messaging associated – is consistency,” concludes Thomaz. “If you’re saying you care for the environment, or human rights, but employ small children in a third world country, not only are you unethical, you’re also inconsistent. I don’t know what to believe.

“Inconsistencies add up and lead to significantly ineffective brand positioning,” he continues. “Essentially, you lose trust. And trust is incredibly important in today’s world.”

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