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How to Use Brand Activism to Ethically Grow Your Brand

Margaret Olat
Margaret Olat

Learn how your business can support a social cause that you and your audience care about.

On May 22, 2019, six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix joined her colleagues in breaking their nondisclosure agreements to reveal Nike's lack of maternity protection for female athletes in an op-ed for The New York Times.

In the article, Felix narrated a harrowing experience of what it felt like to be denied maternity protection after prematurely delivering her baby due to severe preeclampsia at 32 weeks of gestational age. What's more, she's not the only one who's come forward with reports of discrimination. Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher and Phoebe Wright – all Nike-sponsored runners – have bravely given an account of the financial penalties handed out by an organization that urges women to "dream crazier."

The results of breaking their silence have been remarkable. In the same month that Montaño and Felix spoke out, the company surrendered to the backlash and changed its policy. While this isn't the first time an organization has been criticized, Felix's and her colleagues' actions led to the hashtag #dreammaternity, a renewed focus on their personal brands and a closer look at how companies respond to social issues.

What is the connection between a well-decorated Olympian and fighting to change unpaid maternity leave, and how can learning from this help you grow your brand and business? This is called brand activism.

What is brand activism?

Brand activism is a company's move to use its platform to influence reforms on social, economic and political issues. In the past, organizations and brands have long aligned themselves with causes that reflect their own core values and promoted them through corporate social responsibility. Now we have brand activism, which means that companies have become more visible on the front lines and are often the first ones to seek justice on behalf of the public.

Instead of focusing on closing better deals or maintaining the image of a top athlete, Felix and her colleagues were not afraid to join a conversation that has a social and political impact. They chose to be brave and fight for a system overhaul at a time when celebrities and athletes have been told to only do what they're paid to do.

Why should small businesses engage in brand activism?

In a society where personal branding has become synonymous with social responsibility, there's a lot of expectations for small and midsize businesses to join a movement that seeks to influence community change. While there isn't a hard-and-fast rule for exactly when to start engaging in brand activism, one thing is certain: Your identity as an entrepreneur or a small business owner is not enough to give you a leg up on the competition.

We live in an information age, and for businesses to get ahead of their competitors without resorting to sales gimmicks, you need to start having conversations that are important to your audience. Just like customers follow calls to action on sales pages and product descriptions, they are moved when they feel that you care about them. One way to do this is to strategically use your business platform to request social, political and economic reforms for issues that impact your audience.

What are the benefits of brand activism?

Here's how brand activism benefits you as an entrepreneur.

  1. You become a pioneer in your industry. As a brand activist, you frame the moral discourse for issues you care about and seek legal legitimacy for them. You embrace a common fight with your audience to highlight a salient problem in your community, just like Felix and her colleagues have done.
  2. Brand activism can take your brand from obscurity to massive visibility in your industry. It humanizes your company and shortens the perceived distance between your brand and your audience. People want to buy from businesses that care about the issues they value. This in turn shapes the character of customers, something that corporate social responsibility alone can't achieve.
  3. Goodwill for you extends to your brand. Pop icon Rihanna already had a large base of die-hard fans. But when she founded her makeup brand Fenty Beauty, which celebrates inclusivity for people of color in its marketing campaign and color palettes, her fans supported it enthusiastically, sending the beauty industry into upheaval. The brand reportedly made $100 million in sales in its first 40 days on the market and inspired the term the "Fenty effect." Competitors rushed to expand color shades for people of color in their product lines.

How can you ethically use brand activism to grow your brand?

1. Have a genuine interest in the causes you choose to support. 

Jessica Alba's business, The Honest Company, was inspired by her desire to find nontoxic household products that were effective and affordable after she had her baby. YouTube beauty influencer and makeup artist Jackie Aina has repeatedly criticized several makeup brands for refusing to expand their foundation shades, despite the fact that they claim to promote diversity. These are examples of causes that sparked a movement because of female pioneers who had skin in the game.

2. Educate yourself on the culture of the community you choose to represent.

Debating moral or political issues puts your brand under extreme scrutiny. Nothing spells disaster more for a business than ignorantly upholding negative stereotypes about the people you seek to support.

In the Journal of Brand Management, researchers explain how corporate moral wrongdoings and negative stereotypes of a brand's consumers can cause consumers to oppose a brand. We saw this happen in 2017 when Dove faced a backlash over its commercial showing a black woman turning white after using its products. Dove has since apologized, admitted that the brand "missed the mark," and has sharpened its focus on its campaign for real beauty.

3. Study global brands and how they have positively shaped conversations on socioeconomic issues.

Global brands don't make mistakes all the time. Sometimes they hit the mark and bring about positive dialogue on significant issues affecting their audiences. For example, Dove's "real beauty" campaign capitalized on research that discovered that only 2% of women considered themselves beautiful. The success of this campaign painted Dove as a company that has an emotional connection with its customers.

As you study global brands, examine how they have changed branding rules. Consider these questions:

  • What conversations are they having on a regular basis?
  • Who are they having these conversations with?
  • What do their audiences feel or know about these topics?
  • What research was involved in the process?
  • How do we get buy-in from real people who use our products as we try to become socially conscious?

Once you have clarity on these questions, you're ready to start rebuilding your brand.

Image Credit:
Margaret Olat
Margaret Olat Member
I’m a writer, speaker, and creative coach. I teach creative entrepreneurs how to create crazy-inspired businesses fueled by creative freedom. As a former career coach to millennials, I have written on how to decode what hiring managers really want and have been featured as a career expert on Albert's List, a community of 38,000+ members that connects recruiters and job seekers with the power of referrals. More recently, I was a resident expert on thriving in a ‘hustle society’ at Alt Summit, a conference and community of 20,000+ women influencers and entrepreneurs in creative fields. My thoughts on career and entrepreneurship have also been featured on She Owns It, The Good Men Project, Lifehack, Elephant Journal, TEDxLincolnsquare, Addicted2Success, Thrive Global, The Huffington Post, Career Contessa, Inspired COACH magazine, and many more.