Dear Channel 4
Marc Allenby writes on how Channel 4’s constant strive toward inclusivity has inspired his own work
Does the new era of brand activism demand a shift from awareness to tangible actions and investments?
In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, purpose fatigue has made audiences more cynical than ever. Customers can see through surface-level activism and are demanding that brands prove their worth and demonstrate their right to play in the purpose space.
When done right, brand activism can boost loyalty, sales and make a genuinely positive impact on the world. Some of the most successful campaigns at Cannes Lions this year had purpose at the core. Yet the real standout campaigns were the ones that went the extra mile to drive change beyond their bottom line.
Take Dove’s Bold Glamour campaign, by stoking the fires of cultural conversation the campaign went beyond awareness to drive real action within the influencer community. An ethos also underpinned by Gleam’s move to update its influencer filter policy to encourage more transparent use of social media and help create a less toxic environment for young girls.
Brand activism has to be made up of more than rainbow logos or ‘greenwashed’ messaging. Today a brand has to make genuine connections, engage communities and be clear about its role in creating change. With this in mind we asked industry experts; does the new era of brand activism demand a shift from awareness to tangible actions and investments?
Long gone are the days when simply raising awareness of an issue is enough. Tangible action, trackable progress and genuine passion for a cause is now expected as standard for any brand engaging in activism.
Authenticity is a buzzword for a reason, people need to see that brands really do want to impact change, and that a cause they attach themselves to isn’t just a PR stunt designed to improve their public image.
The action brands should take also needs to be considered. For instance, kickstarting a petition or writing an open letter, but avoiding putting any real investment behind a campaign is frankly getting old. Essentially, be prepared to put your money where your mouth is, ensure you’ve earmarked serious budget to support the cause you are championing and that you aren’t asking audiences to do something you aren’t prepared to do as a brand as well.
Finally, it may sound obvious but don’t champion a cause for a few months and then forget it. If you are serious about brand activism, ensure you are prepared to fight the cause for the long term. Build it into the heart of your brand strategy, and ensure every level of the business is involved and invested
Want to know where brand activism is going? Look at the trajectory of the last three Creative Effectiveness Lions winners. ‘20/21 was Nike with ‘Dream Crazy’ narrated by Colin Kaepernick associating the brand with his values. The ‘22 award went to Michelob Ultra for ‘Contract for change’ which pledged to help transform America’s agriculture over three years. And this year’s winner is Cabury’s who supported India’s independent retailers post-pandemic by using their mega-star ambassador Shah Rukh Khan to create personalised ads helping stores across the nation sell more Cadbury’s over Diwali.
In four short ‘Lions’ years, brand activism has gone from big, symbolic, ‘value’ statements. To ambitious plans to change the world. To tangible action to make a local difference to sell more chocolate during a holiday.
If the past is a foreign country, we no longer speak the same language as 2010’s brand purpose. The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have shrunk our horizons and greenwashing has made us cynical. Yes, we still want brands to do good, but not some abstract good ‘on account’. This is the ‘show me the karma’ era where brand activism needs to be transparent, personally relevant and delivered now. And while we may pine for a lost age of brand idealism, by binning the baloney, brands will become more honest, humble and effective as a result. Welcome to the new era.
In short, yes. More and more brands are having to take an active stand on social and environmental issues. Why? Because investors and regulators have demanded corporate action on issues from reducing emissions to promoting diversity to building fairer supply chains. And once businesses have been forced to make those investments – and they do cost – then the questions move to the marketing department: how do we get a return on this investment? How do we protect our reputation and make sure people see we’re not the bad guys? How do we change the market so less scrupulous competitors can’t undercut us? So brands are forced to be seen to be active on climate change and social justice to get a return on those investments. And the thing is, it’s equally dangerous to talk about these things without acting on them: brand say without brand do gets called out now not just by campaigners, but by punchy start-ups who in the absence of huge marketing budgets have taken a leaf out of the campaigners’ handbook, and regulators looking to prove that greenwash rules have teeth. Brand activism above all needs action not just words.
Being a force for good is good business. And this is not just my opinion.
Our Superpowers Index is the world’s largest survey of what drives B2B buying action. This year, socially-linked factors have been more prominent in driving decisions, highlighting the importance of a business’s obligations to society, its culture of diversity and inclusion, and its alignment with a buyer’s personal values.
But it’s not enough to simply state brand purpose; brands need to walk the walk. To avoid falling into the trap of woke-washing, brands need to reflect their brand activism by staying true to their underlying beliefs. Their responsibility is not merely to say, but to do.
A recent B2B Cannes winner was Eart4, which encouraged business leaders to take urgent action on United Nations’ goals by turning Earth into a company and launching its IPO on the stock exchange. Simply talking about the planet’s CO2 emissions and poverty numbers would not have struck a chord as much as the action of actually turning it into a business.
Closer to home, our work with legal firm, Irwin Mitchell, also went far beyond mere awareness. Our campaign “Expert Hand, Human Touch” highlighted the lack of Disabled people within the marketing industry. So we handpicked talent, resulting in 60% of people behind the camera being those with disabilities.
It’s fundamental that B2B marketing can have a positive impact on cultural and societal issues, and that we must embrace this not only as a responsibility but as an opportunity to take action.
In my view, we need to take a step back. For most brands, brand activism should not be part of marketing but part of how a company operates.
Marketing aims to drive growth. Using brand activism as part of the marketing mix implies that it can be a growth engine i.e. it’s an investment to drive brand preference to drive business growth. This sets the wrong expectations. There is a growing intent-action gap which has been widened by the recession. And in the case of climate change, as it's a systemic issue, no-one is incentivised to move unless everyone moves.
Brand activism is a business necessity to win (survive) long-term. In the case of climate change, its effect compounds over time (compared to unused marketing budgets) and will put businesses at risk. Brands need to change their supply chain to influence what demands look like — it’s about changing the meta as gamers would say. It will be costly now, but it will secure business in the future. In a future where everything looks different, we have to accept that success will look different, too. If we don’t, the legal framework will certainly force us to.
I recently saw a great quote from Anna Lappé, explaining that every time we spend money, we’re voting for the world we want. It’s an aphorism that’s as apt to brands as to individual consumers.
Brands know this, hence the push towards purpose marketing. But everyone’s extremely tired of brands saying they care and watching them doing nothing about it.
And in a cost-of-living crisis what world do people want?
Well if spending is a vote, too many consumers are voting for a world where they can simply get by. Values matter. But right now, value does too.
So if there’s anything to be an activist for it’s your customer.
If they’re struggling, show you care through action. Because, we need a world where nothing comes before humanity. And if you can, don’t be afraid to speak about it too. Because no matter the cause, actions that happen silently are a missed opportunity. When brands show they’re taking real action, something greater than the sum of its parts can happen. The pressure on competitors increases and a network effect kicks in. We all get a little closer to the world we want.
Yes! We’re in a critical window for businesses (and therefore brands) to make tangible, active and financial contributions to a whole range of social and environmental issues. That’s a great thing — and a natural progression from firstly connecting with the right issue(s), learning, understanding and figuring out how to add value as a business. The demand for more action now is a healthy challenge for companies, because it invites every brand to know itself a little more deeply, live its values more vividly, and do more meaningful stuff, often in collaboration with partners.
For sure, it can feel like this work is shrouded in cynicism some days, and there will always be shallower and deeper gestures. These are topics that are very close to people’s hearts. But if you run a brand that genuinely wants to do something positive and tangible for people or the planet, in a way that reinforces key commitments and the culture at the heart of your company — GO FOR IT. Just make sure it’s tied to what you’re really about (think laterally, not literally), sound out some people who are deeper into this topic or issue than you are, to sense-check. And if you’re going to be loud and proud about it, think first about whether you could be offering your channels to unheard voices at the heart of the topic, not just your brand’s voice. This stuff is a journey — just do your best, stay resilient, keep listening and keep going!
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