Brand Activism: The Fine Line Between Fake and Real
People aren’t the only beings that can be two-faced—brands can be too. In the age of brand activism, consumers wonder if companies are being authentic or if they’re just trying to take our dollars. According to Interbrand, “purpose without authenticity doesn’t work.” To capture the hearts of consumers, companies need to speak on issues that tie back directly to their core values with empathy and vigilance. Cone Communications’ 2017 CSR study found that 65 percent of Americans will do research to make sure that a company’s stance on a social or environmental issue is authentic.
Patagonia: Not Just for the Tech and Business Bros
Patagonia is a renowned name in the world of corporate activism. Branding itself as “the activist company,” Patagonia sells outdoor clothing and gear, and it does so by emphasizing its purpose to “save our home planet.” And it makes sense—if you’re selling products that encourage exploring the outdoors, you better make sure there is an outdoors to explore. Patagonia engages in corporate sponsorships, employee activism and environmental campaigns in the efforts to protect and preserve the environment. The company donates 1 percent of sales to support environmental organizations and grassroots movements. The green company also closely scrutinizes its environmental impact on the world—the program Worn Wear repairs, shares and recycles old Patagonia gear and sells it online, and supply chain operations including sourcing of materials and labor are transparent and responsible. Patagonia Action Works connects individuals looking to make a change with organizations that are working on important issues impacting the communities we live in.
In December 2017, Patagonia truly emerged as the activist company when President Trump announced that the size of two national monuments in Utah would be sharply reduced. An hour later, the company’s website homepage was updated to display a somber statement: “The President Stole Your Land.” The campaign urged consumers to take action against the reduction of the national monuments. And then Patagonia did something that was virtually unheard of: the company sued the president. In an age where politics and corporation can be a deadly concoction, this move was resolute, teetering on the edge of danger. In November 2018, CEO Rose Marcario announced that Patagonia was donating its $10 million in tax cuts to environmental groups.
These daring actions have paid off, and consumers believe in Patagonia’s mission now more than ever. In 2017, revenue was approaching $1 billion. Rose Marcario said, “Doing good work for the planet creates new markets and makes [us] more money.” Because Patagonia’s foundation was built on the notion of embracing and respecting nature and the outdoors, its actions to do whatever it takes to save our planet is not suspicious or exploitative. It is Patagonia.
Caffeine Failed to Make Starbucks Woke
In March 2015, the global coffee company launched the ‘Race Together’ initiative, an attempt to create a discourse on race relations in America between customers and employees. Baristas wrote the phrase 'Race Together' on Starbucks cups in an attempt to start conversations on the subject. The concept of forcing baristas to speak with unsuspecting customers about a complex and sensitive topic is as uncomfortable as it seems—it was no surprise that this campaign came in last place. What adds fuel to the fire is that in pictures to promote the campaign, the hands holding the 'Race Together' cups were all white. And because most of Starbucks’ executive management team is white, dissenters argued that the company needs to focus on diversity within before it makes any remarks on race in America.
Although it is possible that the initiative came from a sincere place in Howard Schultz’s heart to further understand racism and discrimination in the United States, the issue is incongruous with coffee. Why is a coffee shop a place for people to have serious revelations about the deep racial and ethnic inequalities plaguing this country? Many viewed the catastrophe as taking advantage of a serious issue to increase Starbucks’ bottom line. The pair of coffee and discussions on race relations isn’t exactly the new peanut butter and jelly.
Don’t Be Fake
Brands must remember the values that make them unique. The key is to embed these traits into the causes you are supporting so consumers aren’t confused or hesitant on what you stand for. According to Regina Luttrell in "Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect," companies must pay attention to issues in trust and accountability when conflicts arise in the social sphere. Like the famous quote that says, “Be yourself because everyone else is taken,” brands should stick to their identities to show real authenticity and purpose.