A politically divided America is forcing brands to choose sides
In the latest Ad Age trend report, "Brands As Citizens," contributing writer Michael Applebaum takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon of how brand activism is evolving in the post-Trump, post-COVID, post-BLM era. Originally published on April 30. This article has been updated.
Brand activism is more prevalent than ever. Research suggests that consumers are more likely to reward companies and brands that stand up for the issues they believe in. Brands like Nike, UPS and Toyota that are recognized for their high commitment to purpose have grown at more than twice the rate of others, according to a 2020 Kantar report.
But brands are also getting swept up in a torrent of events beyond their control. Ever since the start of the pandemic and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and continuing through the January 6 Capitol Hill riots and backlash over restrictive new voting laws, it seems that corporate America is increasingly expected to respond to every major cultural or political controversy—and often with a point of view that is in line with today’s younger, diverse and more progressive electorate.
“The events of the past year have made it inescapably clear that brands and companies have a responsibility to step up as both a force of good for society and a force of growth for business,” says Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble. “People are looking at what’s behind the brand: What are its values and beliefs, and what are the specific actions they’re taking to make the world a better place.”
The strategy does come with serious risks. Today’s volatile political landscape is a minefield for corporate leaders, as the CEOs of Delta and Coca-Cola discovered when their initial lukewarm statements in support of voting rights resulted in calls for major boycotts that led to more forceful announcements. Even Major League Baseball, with its snap decision to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver, seems to have gotten the message.
Some marketers argue the more, the merrier when it comes to brands that champion vital causes like the environment. “It’s great to have more voices be a part of this movement because there needs to be a sense of urgency [about climate change],” says Cory Bayers, VP of global marketing at Patagonia. “There are always going to be a few superficial campaigns here and there, but I have confidence in the community and our customers that they know when someone is just trying to appease them or sell them something.”
“The events of the past year have made it inescapably clear that brands and companies have a responsibility to step up as both a force of good for society and a force of growth for business. People are looking at what’s behind the brand: What are its values and beliefs, and what are the specific actions they’re taking to make the world a better place.” —Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer, Procter & Gamble
Yet others are sounding the alarm over what they see as a growing problem of activism without decisive action. "If you’re not willing to act, there’s no sense in getting involved in the game because the people you serve are too smart, too savvy, and will call B.S.,” wrote Ben & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy in an open letter in Fortune in January.
Even some big brands that have outwardly supported Black Lives Matter have opened themselves up to charges of "purpose washing." Despite pledging solidarity on social media and cash to racial justice organizations, megacorporations like McDonald's, General Motors and Coca-Cola have been accused of perpetuating systemic racism via economic exclusion by failing to adequately spend ad dollars with Black-owned media companies.
Byron Allen, founder, chairman and CEO of Allen Media Group, owner of The Weather Channel among many other media properties, spearheaded the movement back in March with letters of intent to sue major brands—including GM and Coca-Cola—if they and their agencies did not commit a minimum of 2% of their budgets to Black-owned media. Later that month, Allen and a collection of Black media heads including Earl "Butch" Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise; Ice Cube, owner of the pro-basketball league Big3, production company Cubevision and Contract with Black America; Roland Martin, CEO of Nu Vision Media; and Junior Bridgeman, owner of Ebony Media published an open letter in the Detroit Free Press, accusing GM CEO Mary Barra of ignoring requests to meet with them and calling on her to resign if GM did not meet their demands. Finally, Allen took the big step last week of suing McDonald's for $10 billion, accusing the fast-food giant of intentionally discriminating against his company Entertainment Studios and Weather Group through “a pattern of racial stereotyping and refusals to contract.”
The Black-owned media movement has begun to move the needle—at least on the agency side: GroupM pledged to invest 2% of its budget in Black-owned media over the next year, and IPG Mediabrands committed to invest at least 5% by 2023.
How can brands make smarter—and perhaps more selective—choices as to when and how to speak out on the issues? And what are the risks brands face when their stated values align with a younger, diverse and more progressive consumer base, but their business expenditures historically fall short of those ideals?
This is the crux of our latest trend report. We interviewed a wide-ranging group of authors, cultural experts, academic leaders, researchers and brand consultants, as well as marketers like Pritchard and Bayers who are on the front lines. We break down the individual brand strategies, examine the different interpretations between Gen Z and millennials, gather the latest market intelligence on the pros and cons of brand activism—and even tackle the thorny subject of cancel culture—in this sweeping 15-page report.
Ad Age publishes a series of case studies and trend reports exclusively for Ad Age subscribers. To learn more about Ad Age membership levels and benefits, visit our Subscribe Page. Subscribers can instantly download the latest trend report in our Member Content section, as well as access the entire library of exclusive Ad Age case studies and trend reports, including "Downtime Opportunity," Ad Age Director of Analytics Bradley Johnson's comprehensive white paper about innovation in the worst of times, from the Great Depression to the Great COVID-19 Pandemic.