Do Good & Mean It

When it Comes to Brand Activism, Here’s What Many Startups Are Getting Wrong

1. Taking or Not Taking a Stand on Social and Political Issues

Last year has been the year of many things, but in the branding world, I’d say 2020 was the year of brand activism. I’ve never seen so many companies speak out or take action on socio-political issues as I have this year—but I’ve also never seen so many get it wrong.

From putting out tone-deaf messaging to clogging up an important hashtag with pithy posts to getting called out for not backing statements with action, there are so many ways to misstep when bringing your brand to the activism table.

And yet, increasingly, not doing anything is not an option. We live in a world where consumers believe brands can and should make an impact: A Sprout Social report found that 70% of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues—and that was before 2020. Plus, as a founder or leader, you may feel a personal responsibility to use any platform you have to help right the wrongs you see.

2. The Biggest Brand Activism Mistakes

So how can your brand get involved without doing more harm than good?

The biggest mistake I see companies making is feeling the need to speak out on every issue that’s currently trending. This is especially true for startups that don’t have defined communications or marketing strategies in place—the founder ends up making in-the-moment decisions based on their opinions or what they feel like they should do, and those opinions don’t always truly reflect the brand. This leads to a few potential issues:

  • Your messaging may end up sounding disingenuous or like a marketing ploy to sell more products.
  • You may end up sounding like every other company out there, meaning it’s not really an opportunity to grow your brand affinity. (Think: All the brands posting black squares on Instagram in support of BLM but not doing much else.)
  • You miss out on the chance to make a real impact on any one issue by spreading yourself too thin.

Instead of trying to speak up about everything, a better approach is to focus on authentic brand activism—finding the issues that align deeply with your company mission, values, and personality, and focusing your efforts there. 

Research backs this up: A paper by the American Marketing Association shares that consumers look for obvious links between a brand’s purpose and its advocacy, and consumers say it boosts a brand’s credibility when the issue they take a stand on directly impacts their customers or business operations.

3. What Does Authentic Brand Activism Look Like?

So how can you find opportunities for authentic activism? I recommend starting by returning to some of your core brand elements. For instance:

  • Your founder storyGo back to the experiences that inspired you to start this company—are they related to any socio-political issues that you may want to support as well? 
  • Your company mission: Think about your high-level mission, not just the products you sell. Is there any activism that would help you further that mission in the world at large? Thinx is all about making periods easier to deal with and less taboo, so their activism work around puberty education and menstrual equity are natural fits. 
  • Your company values: What are the things your team and company care about in the work that you do—and what bigger societal issues relate to those ideals? Patagonia is a brand all about helping people enjoy the outdoors, and therefore their work around preserving the outdoors (in particular, environmental activism and land protection) makes sense.
  • Your target marketWhat are issues that affect your customer base? Taking action on these issues may be a way to show you support your customers in deeper ways than just trying to sell them a product. For instance, speaking out against racism makes sense for Uber because they want all riders and drivers to feel safe. 
  • Your brand associations: I often think of this as your brand persona—if your brand were a person, what are the causes they would care about? These could be opportunities for authentic activism. While I’ve never worked with the Lush marketing department, I’d imagine that a persona who cares about the tenets of their brand (such as clean, ethically-sourced ingredients and lack of animal testing), would also care about human rights and social justice issues, which is why that has become integrated into their brand strategy.

There are plenty of moments where silence is complicity, and you don’t want to look like your brand is totally in the dark.

4. Putting it All Together

The goal as you go through these questions is to find a cause or causes that are so deeply aligned with your brand that the messaging, positioning, and actions you can take become obvious, rather than feeling like something you’re struggling to figure out. It should be something that you feel you could easily build an entire strategy around, that could integrate into multiple aspects of your business rather than being a one-off social post. It should be something you feel your brand can actually become an expert and a leader on, something you feel you could truly educate your followers on or take meaningful action around.

This isn’t to say that hot-button items won’t ever come up—issues outside of your core causes that warrant some sort of action. There are plenty of moments where silence is complicity, and you don’t want to look like your brand is totally in the dark.

In those instances, I encourage you to resist the urge to rush a statement, and instead return to the branding elements listed above. How does this issue relate to your values or mission? Why does your brand care about this? Why do your customers? What is something only your brand can do? Think how Glossier, instead of just making a statement about their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, launched a grant program to help improve representation in the beauty industry, thereby relating their activism back to their brand. 

Whether you’re planning a long-term activism strategy for your company or trying to think of how to respond to an of-the-moment issue, returning to the core tenants of your brand to guide you will help you make a bigger impact every time—for your company, and the world at large.

If you’d like to review your brand strategy, book a free 20-minute consultation with me here.