Why brands are increasingly embracing activism

Millennials prefer their products to reflect their social values. Companies are taking note, writes Shelina Janmohamed

A restaurant owner in Afghanistan holds up a bottle of Mecca Cola. Customers increasingly want to exercise the power of the money in their pockets. Photo by Reza / Getty Images
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Millennials prefer their products to reflect their social values. Companies are taking note

In 2003, a new brand of cola arrived on the scene in France. “Don’t drink stupid,” was Mecca Cola’s strapline, “drink committed.” Within two months, it sold more than 2 million 1.5 litre bottles and had orders for 16 million more. The very essence of their brand was activism, encouraging consumers to use their consumption as a political tool for change.

Putting pressure on brands by staging hostile publicity or boycotting brands has a long history. It seems rather apt to look back at the Boston Tea Party, and its combination of imperialism, protectionism and tariffs as perhaps the most famous of protests. More recently, Nestlé infamously faced scrutiny in the 1970s over its infant formula sales. Abercrombie & Fitch faced a “girlcott” after female students were incensed by what they claimed were slogans degrading to women on their T-shirts such as “Who needs brains when you have these?” and “I had a nightmare I was a brunette” on the front.

Brands have been understandably averse to entering the political fray. After all, they don’t want to alienate vast sections of their consumers, upset powerful gatekeepers, nor find themselves on the wrong side of history or current affairs.

Which brings us to the past two weeks in global events. And it seems a new era of brand activism has dawned.

It’s been a while in the making, but recent hard and polarising events have made it compelling at the same time as making it safer for brands to move into activism as a brand strategy.

This is partly because the businesses behind the brands need to position themselves politically, and when policies will interfere with their goals, they are forced to speak up. The American tech industry has been vocal about supporting immigrants and refugees – after all, so much of Silicon Valley is of immigrant origin. But it’s also interesting to note how the Chinese founder of Alibaba.com, the world’s largest online retailer, has also been vocal about trade and tariff impositions.

At the root of this flourishing of brand activism is a shift in consumer expectations that requires brands to have a mission.

Corporate social responsibility programmes were once the preferred choice – a way of showing community credentials and of creating links with non-controversial causes.

Brand activism is different. If a brand can find a cause that fits with its mission, that will enhance its status. But it can also get the brand into hot water.

#DeleteUber has borne the brunt of this shift in consumer behaviour, as the ride-sharing service was perceived to be supporting president Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”. Everywhere I looked, people were deleting their app (although perhaps forgetting to close their accounts) and suggesting alternative services. The mass consumer deletion didn’t change the root of the problem, but it did ensure that Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, dropped out of the president’s advisory council. This ensured that the brand was bowing to the ideals of its consumers.

For millennial consumers in particular, the brands they choose say something about their own social conscience. It’s a badge of their ethics. But they also understand that consumption is a tool they can use as they wage their own social activism.

They see brands as potential social leaders. After all, brands shape so much of our culture and our identity. In an era of fake news, the brand is seen as an entity that can be held accountable and therefore must stand for something. It’s like a person, and consumers expect that person to align with their morals and show moral leadership.

What this means is that they scrutinise brands to see how they stack up as businesses, not just in what they say, but across the supply chain.

The question is, how expansive and long lasting will this shift to brand activism be?

My prediction is that we will see a lot more brand activism, encouraged by a generation of consumers who don’t see brands as things they buy, but as a means to make change in the world – and say something about themselves in the process.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of the books Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and Love in a Headscarf

On Twitter: @loveinheadscarf