The Rise of Activism Marketing

From the award show speeches to Nike commercials, colorless Skittles, and businesses closing for the day, there is one thing we cannot deny about 2017 – activism is in.

It’s natural to believe that philanthropy and activism should stem from our desire to help humanity and improve society. So, it can be off-putting to think of “activism” as a trend that goes through cycles of popularity. Doing good for the sake of publicity, profit, or persona has always been faux pas, so why is it that some companies succeed at “activism marketing,” and those who support them don’t feel guilty about doing it for the wrong reasons?

In order to answer these questions, think back to the early 2000s, when the Internet was just coming into widespread use. A generation of Millennials grew up with the perspective that to answer a question, you no longer had to ask an expert or go to a library. You could simply search online. Such easy access to information left no excuse for ignorance and created a broader awareness of global issues, helping inspire the need for action, especially in a culture that values human rights and freedom. If you had the funds and time to make a difference, then doing nothing felt as if you were enabling injustice.

But for some consumers, the funds can be easier to find than the time. So, companies started finding ways to support a cause while benefiting their bottom line: they began to sell products that help people feel good about meeting their own needs as well as the needs of others. The purchase of a red iPod or a pair of Toms can be justified by the fact that it will support a good cause. You get a product you enjoy, the company earns a profit, and both of you help someone less fortunate – it’s a win-win-win.

This approach put a new twist on capitalism, even leading to a new corporate classification. As of 2010, a company can now be certified as a “B-Corp” – a for-profit company whose regular operations positively impact the community.

Even some big-name brands have gotten in on the trend recently. For example, this year in February, Nike decided to make a stronger push in their messaging for Black History Month. For many years they have released exclusive BHM gear, like special colorways for Jordans with matching t-shirts and accessories. But this year, Nike took it a step further and ran an Equality campaign that not only included shoes, apparel, and a star-studded commercial – but also partnerships with multiple organizations nationwide to help promote equality.

The commercial was first aired during the 2017 Grammys on February 12, shortly after the immigration ban was announced, which made it all the more stirring. Nike was able to effectively create a message that:

  • was simple and focused,
  • did not isolate any particular groups,
  • spoke to the current social landscape, and
  • kept within their brand messaging.

All in all, it was the best execution possible. Nike is using their reach to create a community of influence in a way that no single non-profit organization can match, amplifying a core theme of philanthropy, which is to bring people together. But without such resources to pour into a campaign, how can companies of any size engage in activism marketing?

The answer is simple: Follow Nike’s example and build a community.

The first step is to find a cause that parallels your brand messaging, then find other organizations, companies, and non-profits that value that same cause. For small businesses in particular, connecting with a like-minded community is key to expanding your audience. When the primary goal is to spread awareness of a good cause, it doesn’t matter if your brand is the only one associated with that cause. Customers will still make the connection.

At the end of the day, people like to buy things. But this generation has been raised on the idea that if you look injustice in the face and do not act, you are part of the problem. Activism marketing works because it allows people to do both things at once – make purchases, and make the world a better place.

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