As consumers increasingly expect brands to be the drivers of change, WARC’s Chiara Manco looks at three brands that embraced activism.

Today, 71% of people believe that brands are more of a ‘force for good’ than governments or similar institutions, according to research by agency VMLY&R. Fortunately, marketers agree: a survey for WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2020 found that more than 75% agree that brands need to take a stand on social issues.

The next step for brands is matching words with deeds.

Approaches to activism may vary and the issues addressed might be social, environment or political. But one thing is non-negotiable: authenticity. Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad is a cautionary tale about the perils of phony activism, complete with backlash and repercussions on brand health. According to Tomas Gonsorcik, Chief Strategy Officer at VMLY&R, who spoke at WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit event in New York in December, activism should connect back to a brand’s underlying equity in a manner that “leads to a point of trust between you and consumers over time.”

Edeka: showing, not telling

In 2016, nationalist tendencies were emerging all over the globe: the UK voted to leave the European Union, while newly-elected President Trump pontificated about building a wall between the US and Mexico. Germany was no exception, as the far-right party AfD grew in popularity.

German supermarket chain Edeka, which prides itself on its commitment to diversity, worked with agency Jung von Matt to make a bold statement at a politically-charged time. Proving that showing is more powerful than telling, Edeka removed all non-German products from one of its stores, leaving baffled consumers staring at empty shelves. There’s genuine horror at no coffee and no chocolate, as shoppers face the reality of what a nationalist supermarket looks like. With no initial PR, the supermarket relied entirely on consumers to spread the word. Only then did Edeka publish a video across its channels to amplify the message and encourage dialogue.

Edeka’s stunt made headlines worldwide and boosted the supermarket’s image as a champion of diversity.

Read the case study on WARC.

Absolut: celebrating a country’s true colours

Vodka brand Absolut also tackled the issue of racism, showing the flip side of it. Rather than bringing to life the ugly reality of xenophobia, like Edeka, it celebrated the richness of a multi-cultural country. Despite its population being extremely diverse, Slovakia is one of the most xenophobic countries in Europe. Through Triad Advertising, Absolut launched its first campaign in the country, staying true to its brand spirit of bringing people together.

First, it partnered a black Slovak singer, Natalie, and featured her across all campaign assets under the headline ‘Slovak mothers, great daughters you have’ – a modern take on a famous Slovak folklore song. Then, the brand collaborated with Spotify to create an Absolut playlist, featuring 50 Slovak artists singing about diversity and tolerance.

Absolut’s campaign took Slovakia by storm. It generated €162,500 in earned media and led to a 13% year-on-year sales increase. It won an Effective Use of Brand Purpose Gold at the 2019 WARC Awards and juror Nazia du Bois, Founder of Ricebowl Strategy, described it as “innovative and smart and embedded in culture: it uses culture to change culture.”

Stayfree: empowering women to choose for themselves

Investing in grassroots activism may have seemed unthinkable a few years ago, but now it’s becoming more common, particularly in Asia. Last year, at the 2019 Trends that Matter to Asia event, MullenLowe’s Group Digital Director Mark Haycock made the point that, “purpose is not enough anymore. You actually need to act on that purpose now, and do something meaningful to contribute to society rather than demonstrate the latest CSR.”

In India, feminine hygiene brand Stayfree did precisely that. Its purpose is enabling women to pursue personal progress, so it helped marginalised women reclaim their lost agency. Through interviews with sex workers, the brand uncovered a surprising insight: while period days are often regarded as a nuisance, for women in the sex trade they were a welcome break.

Through DDB Mudra Group, Stayfree launched Project Free Period, an initiative to offer sex workers a way into alternative sources of income. In partnership with anti-trafficking NGO Prerana, the brand developed a series of workshops led by volunteers, which taught sex workers vocational skills to turn their period days into days of learning.

More than 200 sex workers enrolled in the programme – generating a potential income of $28,644 – with many becoming ambassadors for the cause. Project Free Period recently won a Gold in the 2019 WARC Prize for Asian Strategy.

Beyond purpose, towards activism

Brands need to make a clear distinction between activism and purpose, making sure that their promise of purpose is deliverable through appropriate action.

These three brands offer inspiring examples of activism. What does it look like for your brand?