Author’s note: the examples in this article are somewhat dated nowadays. We’ve left this post up because the underlying principles still hold true, and the phenomenon of activist marketing has become even more commonplace since this article was written.

Activist marketing is a fairly recent phenomenon. The term is used to describe a marketing strategy wherein a corporation seeks to publicly take a stance on a topical social issue with the predominant purpose of achieving commercial aims, usually to gain media attention and engender brand goodwill. Use of this strategy has become more noticeable since the turn of the 21st century, but has really risen to prominence over the past few years.

Activist marketing is the latest permutation of a long-running progression in advertising strategy; that is, the shift away from direct messages about a brand (“Bushells – The Coffee that is Fresh”) to more nebulous messages associating a brand with certain feelings or experiences (“Coke – Open Happiness”). Activist marketing takes the objective of association with feelings or experiences a step further, by seeking to have their brand positively identified in connection with a social movement.

Given that people are increasingly filtering the media they consume – via hashtags, Facebook likes, news curation services etc. – to be attuned to their preferences and viewpoints on issues they care about, the strategy of achieving greater exposure by tying brand identity into these issues appears to be soundly based. But there’s a catch, particularly for large businesses.

The catch is this: trending social issues are, by and large, intrinsically divisive. Any business’s customer base is likely to span all points of view on any given issue, with each side assured as to the correctness of their particular opinion. For a business to take a stance on either side of the fence is likely to alienate those who do not share the same stance. That isn’t to say that it’s impossible for any business to pull it off, but both the issue and the position need to be selected carefully.

To illustrate my argument I’ve identified two well-known examples of this concept in practice, one of which was executed poorly and one spectacularly well.

1. ANZ Bank – “We Are Bridging the Super Gap”

Issue: Women’s disadvantage
Company Stance: Affirmative action (positive discrimination) is appropriate to address financial inequality between men and women.
Details: ANZ announced in July 2015 that they would be contributing an additional $500 per annum into the superannuation accounts of their female employees, to address research findings which indicated women held substantially less on average in superannuation accounts than met at retirement age.
Result: The announcements provoked a social media storm. Whilst there was plenty of support, many commentators voiced strong disagreement with the concept of affirmative action to achieve the goal of gender equality. Others openly questioned whether the bank was sincere in its actions or was simply trying to generate positive attention. Overall it proved extremely divisive and the bank found itself at odds with a significant portion of its customer base.

2. Dove – “Campaign for Real Beauty”

Issue: Women’s body image
Company Stance: Women should be encouraged to feel comfortable with their own unique physical appearance.
Details: Based on market research that only 4% of women considered themselves beautiful, Dove set out to create a campaign they called “The Campaign for Real Beauty”. The campaign’s mission was “to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety”.
Result: The beauty about this issue (no pun intended) is that there was no controversy. Whilst it was certainly a topical and important social issue (and still is), it was not a divisive issue. Apart from a few commentators who pointed out the inconsistency between Dove’s branding and that of some other brands owned by its parent company Unilever (Lynx, Axe etc) the initiative was universally well-received by consumers and media alike. It also helped that the Dove brand was a natural fit for advocacy on this issue and could not be accused of insincerity.

Dove’s campaign was one of the early examples of activist marketing, and due to its success is one that many companies have tried to emulate. As can be seen by the ANZ case, however, many have chosen issues that are not a good fit for the brand or are too divisive to succeed as marketing ploys. It’s a dangerous strategy, and one that most companies are best avoiding unless the campaign is a truly authentic extension of the brand’s core values.

If your business is considering an activist marketing campaign, ask yourself three questions before you start:

  1. Do we really care about this issue, or is it simply a ploy to gain market share?
  2. Does our product/service really fit with this campaign?
  3. Do we understand the implications and consequences of this campaign? Will our customer base respond positively?

You must be able to answer ‘yes’ to every one of these questions to make the campaign a success. Otherwise, your campaign will be met with disinterest at best, and outright hostility at worst.

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