For Purpose or Profit? The Ethical Debate Behind Brand Activism

Despite not having vocal cords, corporations are some of the loudest voices in our lives. They compete for the attention of consumers; buying their way into salience and talking to us through billboards and during our favourite TV shows in an almost omnipotent display of influence.

But for all of their pervasiveness, corporations have historically retained a neutral indifference to social and political issues that weren’t of immediate importance.

Recently, that all changed.

The last decade has seen an explosion in corporate social responsibility and brand activism on an unprecedented scale. So called ‘meaningful marketing’ – in which brands adopt a stance on a popular social issue – has become a common trope in long term advertising strategies of corporations and their product lines, for better or for worse. Nowadays, it’s not just cool to care, it’s a necessity of branding. What exactly led to this shift?

Part of it has to do with the growth of social media and digital marketing. A brand message is exponentially more powerful if it reaches the consumer indirectly, as endorsed by a friend or acquaintance. 

The sharing power and perceived intimacy of social media offers the perfect platform to put this strategy to work. Incidentally, the easiest – and likely cheapest – way of making a campaign go viral and be willingly shared by consumers is by positioning the message as reactive to a popular social issue. 

Another factor is the need of consumers for authenticity in a world that is seemingly evermore shaped by lies and division. Corporations are required to build and retain trust with their consumers, a new generation of whom are buying increasingly based on their values. Therefore, to keep up with the market, brands need to shed their traditional neutral standing and build a brand ethos; they need to have an opinion, because this is seen as being authentic. 

To quote Nike's Dream Crazy campaign with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, brands need to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” 

That line of thought worked out well for Nike. Their campaign was not only well timed during a flashpoint of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it also struck a chord with their consumers, the majority of whom are young and likely to side with Kaepernick’s values. 

Though the commercial didn’t explicitly mention any of the political background, the NFL star was already a symbol for the movement from his kneeling during the national anthem, so the association between the two was already inseparable. All in all, it was a brilliant and well considered strategy from Nike which led to people feeling that wearing clothing with their logo on it was almost a political statement in and of itself.

Other brands, however, have tried similar strategies and accidentally ended up sacrificing everything. An already classic example is Pepsi's train wreck of a commercial with Kendall Jenner. At face value, the premise was similar to Nike’s campaign – take a stand reactive to social issues and slap a popular celebrity figurehead on it to sell it.

Unfortunately for Pepsi, the idea somehow made it to television screens without looking like they ever really thought it through. Viewers reacted as such. The problems with the campaign are glaringly obvious: Pepsi didn’t choose a specific social movement to get behind, they’re not known for being a socially aware brand, and Kendall Jenner has no history of activism to speak of. The result seemed to actually trivialize the idea of social activism altogether, and unsurprisingly Pepsi’s public standing took a massive hit.

The contrast in success between Nike and Pepsi’s campaigns show the volatility of brand activism as a marketing tool. On one hand, leveraging popular social issues is a sure-fire way to connect to consumers on an emotional level, but on the other, if approached wrong, that connection is liable to turn septic. Either way, taking an activist standpoint inevitably means alienating a portion of your consumers, and for most brands that’s a risk that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

When Burger King unveiled their Proud Whopper in 2014 to celebrate Pride Week in San Francisco, they were met with mixed reviews. The premise behind the marketing stunt was sweet but perhaps a little uninspired: they changed the packaging of their flagship Whopper burger to carry the colours of the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag, and opening the wrapper revealed the same old burger with the message “We Are All the Same Inside.” 

The reaction video captures a whole rollercoaster of emotions from the day it launched, showing everything from criticism of the campaign and its content, to people tearing up with sheer happiness over the message-bearing burger. 

Overall, it was a generally successful marketing move – DAVID Miami scooped up a bunch of awards and the campaign blew up on the internet. But beyond that, the Pride Whopper can also be used as a case study of the ethical issues surrounding brand activism. The point of contention around the topic is a question of purpose and profit: are brands involving themselves in mainstream social issues because there is a genuine feeling from management that the heft of their corporate influence can act as a force for good, or are they simply appropriating symbols and values from popular movements to turn a profit? 

The former, and perhaps more optimistic side of the debate holds that brands taking a stance on social issues is invariably positive by virtue of their influence. If the multinational Burger King decide to use the rainbow flag, a symbol of a movement defined by acceptance and inclusiveness, in a marketing stunt, then regardless of whether or not their executives actually believe in the statement, they’ve done something good.

The reasoning behind that is it’s likely empowering for marginalized people to see an emblem of their struggle acknowledged by an entity with a global voice, because it heralds a step toward achieving the initial goals of a social movement, in this case mainstream acceptance and toleration. The visibility of the campaign may well have led to tangible real-world effects. Furthermore, when Burger King launched Proud Whoppers in San Francisco, they didn’t also launch ‘Confederate Rodeos’ in the South to catch an opposing side of the market – this shows that it wasn’t a gesture completely devoid of sentiment. If anything, such a well-known brand taking an active stance behind a movement associated with tolerance and plurality signals an overall social shift in the right direction.

The opposing side of the argument is that corporations taking an activist stance is often disingenuous and can even damage the social movements they aim to support. Brand activism as a marketing strategy requires a brand to associate its image with the ideals of a particular social movement in order to sell their product. So if the primary goal for the brand is to profit, not to benefit the social movement, it creates a relationship between brand and movement that the brand benefits disproportionately from. 

In effect, the brand leeches off the hardship and effort put in to popularize the movement under the guise of free advertising. It’s similar to a café telling an artist they will be paid in exposure for providing art for their walls, except without ever even consulting them.

Critics of the Proud Whopper say that it was a hollow gesture that was conceived selfishly rather than because Burger King care. Burger King were accused of ‘rainbow washing’ their brand image, because beyond putting a rainbow flag on their Whoppers, they did no tangible work to support the LGBTQ+ community. The rainbow flag, as much as it symbolizes celebration and acceptance, also carries associations of a long history of struggle and oppression, and so using it to sell a product with no relevance to the movement waters down its meaning. If Burger King had donated some of the profits from the burgers toward the cause, it might have been a different story. But as it stands, offering the Proud Whopper in only a single location in San Francisco during pride week doesn’t constitute much of a show of solidarity for a brand of that scale – it reads more like a safe PR stunt to appeal to an emerging market.

Whatever your stance on the Proud Whopper, it raises a few pertinent questions about brand activism in general. To what extent must a brand show their support for a social movement to profit from using its symbols? Where do we draw the line between a socially beneficial campaign and a harmful one? Is the good created by brand activism cancelled out by other unethical practices within a corporation? And does buying certain products over others ever conflate with genuine activism? 

As with any good ethical dilemma there are no real answers, only choices. For those that believe that brand activism has the power to contribute to building a better society, remember to do your homework and hold corporations accountable where you can when they don’t live up to their promises. 

And if you’re considering brand activism in your own marketing strategy, take a second to question your motives and approach. Brand activism won’t be solely responsible for a better world, but it’s certainly preferable to one in which the loudest voices have nothing positive to say.

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