How Should Brands Think About Political Activism?

brand activism

By Matt Johnson

When it comes to engaging in activism, it’s crucial that the brand should be intrinsically driven to address this issue, and isn’t merely motivated by business concerns. The presence of intrinsic motivation is the key litmus test, and helps ensure that the brand’s engagement is ultimately perceived authentically.

Over the past few years, many brands have grappled with whether they should weigh in on social and political issues. In evaluating this crucial question, brands can gain insight from a very unexpected source: the psychology of hobbies.

On their surface, hobbies and political activism couldn’t be any more different. The former are trivial and fun, while the latter is profound and pragmatic. Activism is distinct from corporate social responsibility, which often takes a behind-the-scenes approach. Instead, activism is about stamping the brand’s flag on a specific issue and publicly declaring the change they want to see.

So what does activism have to do with hobbies? Despite these surface differences, the two share a core commonality at their source. Hobbies and brand activism, when done right, both come from the same wellspring of intrinsic motivation. It’s not done for personal benefit, but for the sake of the thing itself.

When it comes to motivation, it’s intrinsic or nothing. If the engagement with activism is only done to curry favour with consumers, it’s guaranteed to fail.

Consider the rock star Rod Stewart, who, in 2019, revealed that he has a deep penchant for model railways. So much so that he spent over 20 years building a model railway system for a vast metropolis, modelled after a 1940s American city. Stewart’s city is incredibly intricate and he constructed everything, from the towering skyscrapers to the scenery and details of the vintage cars. He even hand-painted the grime on the sidewalk and added trash in the gutters.

He began it as a fun project in his attic in Los Angeles but soon became so engrossed that he would take it on tour with him.

To outsiders, Stewart’s obsession seems puzzling. Why would a millionaire rock star spend so much of his time toiling away on this? Stewart’s answer is simple: “A lot of people laugh at it being a silly hobby, but it’s a wonderful hobby.”

True hobbies are pure in their motivation. There’s no external benefit – no payment, boost in social currency, or badge of recognition. There’s nothing to gain from engaging in the activity; its purpose is the activity itself.

For brands considering political activism, the primary issue is one of motivation. And the first questions they have to ask are of themselves.

motivations for activism

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations for activism

There’s a lot to say about the actual efficacy of brand activism from a business perspective. Questions loom as to whether, and to what extent, it can help differentiate the brand and instantiate a deeper bond with its consumers. But suffice it to say for now that, at least in principle, the business incentives are there. The question is whether intrinsic motivation is also there.

To evaluate this, the brand can ask itself a simple question: what would happen if there was nothing to gain? If the campaigns don’t benefit the brand, either now or at any time in the future, is this still the position we would espouse? If the answer is genuinely yes, the activism may be worth pursuing.

This internal audit is crucial. When it comes to motivation, it’s intrinsic or nothing. If the engagement with activism is only done to curry favour with consumers, it’s guaranteed to fail. Intrinsic motivation is crucial for at least two reasons.

For one, there’s a good chance that this is all there will be. In all likelihood, the activist stance will not yield any extrinsic business benefits.

In a consumer world rife with false claims, consumers have healthy cynicism about a brand’s political stances. As we’ll see, it’s very easy to come off as contrived and disingenuous, which poses significant brand risk.

Hobbies and brand activism, when done right, both come from the same wellspring of intrinsic motivation. It’s not done for personal benefit, but for the sake of the thing itself.

And even if a brand can convince consumers that its political stance is genuine, it’s unlikely to move the needle. Consumers’ decision-making is messy. A brand’s political stance is one of many factors influencing brand loyalty and product choice. A consumer may claim in a survey that they want brands that embody their values but, when you track their actual behaviour in the real world, it tells a very different story. Research reveals that, more often than not, pragmatic variables like price, convenience, and consumer habit easily take precedence.

All told, brand activism is generally a high-risk, low-yield proposition. There are many more ways that it can go wrong than it can go right. Activism with the expectation of reward is a poor calculation.

From the brand’s perspective, intrinsic motivation is the key litmus test for deciding whether to engage in activism. But it isn’t merely that. When it comes to execution, it also gives the stance the best chance of success.

This comes down to the most important feature of successful brand activism: authenticity.

How to appear authentic: be authentic

There’s perhaps no term in marketing more buzzy and vacuous than “authenticity”. And yet, coming off as authentic as a brand is crucial, especially for engagement with political issues.

So what does it mean for a brand to be authentic? Fundamentally, it’s believability. Do consumers reliably believe what the brand espouses?

Perception is reality, and perceived authenticity is, in effect, authenticity itself. To this end, brands could try and fake it. In principle, they could conduct themselves in an elaborate obscurantist manner and effectively lie to the consumer about their position on a given issue.

But this is an uphill battle. There’s no shortage of brands that have attempted this, failed, and suffered public scrutiny. But, in the modern business environment, it’s increasingly difficult to fake it.

values and practice

Consistency between values and practice

When employees can talk openly about a company’s internal dealings on social media, the line between how a company operates and its external perception is increasingly porous. A brand that trumpets equity and inclusion won’t get very far if these values haven’t been operationalised internally and aren’t reflected in the company’s culture. Couple that with a consumer market saturated with healthy cynicism and the easiest path to authenticity is clear: be what you say you are.

Consumers are very sensitive to these inconsistencies. In the lead-up to the 2022 Qatar World Cup, BrewDog proudly exclaimed that it would be the “anti-sponsor of the world cup” beer brand, in protest at the host’s ill treatment of migrant workers, as well as their anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes. As part of the protest, they would dedicate their profits from one of their lagers to charity for the duration of the World Cup.

So far, so good. That is until the internet quickly pointed out that BrewDog was still showing the matches in its breweries and was still selling its beer to Qatar through a third-party distributor. Not exactly the behaviour you’d expect from a true “anti-sponsor”.

The stance should feel like a natural expression of the brand’s identity and its reputation. If not, it all too easily comes off as opportunistic and inauthentic.

Costly signalling

Beyond consistency, authentic brands need to show the courage of their convictions. Anyone can say anything. Talk is cheap. It’s their commitment to the ideas that makes it authentic. This is known as costly signalling; statements that are coupled with risk are much more believable than statements alone.

Consider the British beauty brand Lush, which has long been a critic of social media and, especially, Instagram, due to the deleterious mental health effects it carries for its target market: teenage girls. But in 2021, they took their stance to the next level by pledging to halt all content on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok. Of course, the move comes with significant cost to their business, which is precisely why it makes their position crystal clear.

In the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests, many brands quickly flooded social media with BLM hashtags and commitments to “do better”. But it was the brands engaged in costly signalling whose messages cut through the noise. While Nike had already stamped its position on social justice issues with the controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign of 2018, its subsidiary, Jordan, rose to the challenge differently in 2020. It donated over $100m over 10 years towards ameliorating racial inequality.

Many brands are willing to make verbal gestures, but those that rise above the crowd go further by incurring the cost of these commitments.

Alternatives to activism

Alternatives to activism

As a general rule, brands are in the business of listening to their customers and delivering on their wishes. Is there a demand for a new product? Here you go. Need a more efficient check-out system on our website? We’ll get right on it for you.

More and more, though, these wishes have a political flavour. Consumers want their brands to embody their values, and they want them to express them loudly. But political activism is different from other forms of consumer demand; it carries great risk to the brand, and is notoriously difficult to execute. Moreover, its success is predicated on a brand’s perceived authenticity, which, as we’ve seen, is a tall task.

A brand that trumpets equity and inclusion won’t get very far if these values haven’t been operationalised internally and aren’t reflected in the company’s culture.

When it’s all said and done, very few brands are in a position to engage with politics. Activism isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Recall that activism is about being overt about one’s political and social stances. But if the company truly feels strongly – that is, they are intrinsically passionate about an issue – there is still ample opportunity to make an impact, whether through its internal business practices, political contributions, or philanthropic activity. The brand need not be loud about its social opinions to enact the changes they want to see.

Engaging in politics, whether overtly or quietly, all comes down to why the organisation wants to do so in the first place. And here, all brands can gain a valuable lesson from Sir Rod Stewart: there’s simply no substitute for intrinsic motivation.

About the Author

Matt JohnsonMatt Johnson, PhD is a neuroscientist, speaker, and writer specialising at the intersection of marketing and psychology. He is the author of Branding that Means Business (Economist Books, 2022), and the founder of the Neuroscience of Branding blog. He is a professor of Consumer Psychology at Hult International Business School in Boston.


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