Apple did something remarkable this year, and it had nothing to do with the iPhone or MacBook. It came out against an anti-LGBT bill under consideration in the North Carolina legislature. This was the latest—and arguably most significant—stand the company has taken in its growing activism campaign for LGBT rights. While the law itself had no direct impact on its business, the brand activism demonstrated by Apple makes one thing clear: Companies are starting to recognize that their customers care not only about what they sell but also about what they stand for, and taking stances on social, cultural, and political issues.
This trend is hardly limited to Cupertino, or even to technology companies. Other 800-pound corporate gorillas, including Salesforce and Bank of America, were similarly quick to condemn the North Carolina legislation. What’s worth noting in each case is how the companies tackled the issue: There were personal, passionate responses from each company’s CEO, supported by consistent messaging from communications staff across the organization.
The surge of brand activism we’ve seen in the past few years has been decades in the making. With the rise of social media, citizen journalism, and near-universal access to publishing tools, brands are simply more aware of what their customers think. The same tools give brands the opportunity to join issue conversations on equal footing to more traditional advocacy voices. And, increasingly, brands aim to nurture customer relationships that are lifelong, built not just on product features but also on shared cultural values.
As a result, today’s corporate brand activists aren’t limiting themselves to cautiously phrased "corporate statements" on safe, noncontroversial topics; they’re speaking out on prominent issues of the day, and taking stands that they believe in (and that they believe many of their customers agree with). When brands take action on issues their customers care about, it fosters an emotional connection, which helps cement the loyalty of current customers and encourage new customers to give their products another look.
Ben and Jerry’s knows its customers respect the power of democracy, for example, so it lobbies to improve the Voting Rights Act and integrates political messaging into its product line. Likewise, CVS Health (as it rebranded itself two years ago) has taken a stand by coming out against tobacco use, discontinuing the sale of tobacco products, and putting smoking cessation aids front and center in stores. And Clif Bar has built a substantial messaging program around student loan reform.
Similarly, brands understand the value of following their employees’ lead on issues, both because it helps with retention and recruitment directly and because being known for running a respectful, thoughtful workplace appeals to consumers at large. That's why, when Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly announced he was gay in 2014, he framed it in the context of Apple’s longtime support for both equality and rights for the LGBT community, and the importance of that issue to its employees.
Here are some of the characteristics that these effective brand activism programs have in common:
It’s worth distinguishing brand activism—when a company takes concrete actions to advance a cause or issue position—from mere cultural capitalism, a softer kind of advocacy. These days, almost all companies are cultural capitalists, using their marketing and their business practices to establish a set of values you buy into when you buy their products.
Starbucks, for example, has long stood for supply chain transparency. You buy your coffee knowing that nobody was exploited to produce the latte in your hand. The farmer who grew the beans was compensated fairly, and your barista was trained professionally and is paid a living wage. Marketing approaches like these also bring customers into a constituency, but companies that are brand activists go further. They encourage other companies, and/or society at large, to follow their lead and work for some kind of social change.
Brand activism isn’t a natural fit for every company, and its risks are obvious. Taking a stand is polarizing, and could turn off or even drive away potential customers who don’t agree with you. I say "could" because some brands that take a seemingly controversial stance, as Chik-Fil-A has done with its sustained opposition to marriage equality, don’t necessarily see a significant drop in sales as a result. Chik-Fil-A Appreciation Day, a counter-protest to the backlash against founder Truett Cathy’s comments about the LGBT community, drew more than 650,000 visitors to the chain's stores in a single day. Ultimately, most activist companies have concluded that the love of their fans outweighs the distaste of those who disagree.
Also, if your company is in a business that’s fundamentally controversial, you probably want to walk a finer line. If you’re selling a product that’s inherently dangerous to health, or a service that many people find harmful or distasteful, a brand activism campaign could be seen as an attempt to distract attention from issues you’d rather avoid.
It’s important for companies engaging in brand activism to be seen as leaders in their industry, not followers. Bank of America was the first large financial services company to come out against North Carolina’s antigay legislation and was lauded in the press for doing so. Soon after, it was joined in opposition by a handful of other banks, but by then Bank of America already dominated the story, and the followers were seen as opportunists rather than idealists.
If your company aims to take a more vocal stand on an issue your customers care about, take the time to think your position through and to establish it clearly. Consumers can tell when you’re going through the motions. If your company’s point of view on an issue seems hedged or qualified, people will know, and your reputation will suffer accordingly. So choose an issue that’s consistent with your brand, stake out a clear and coherent position, and stick to it. The customers who really care about it will thank you, and if you’ve chosen well, the odds are that the few you may turn away weren’t the kind of loyal, lifelong customers you’re aiming to cultivate.
Rich Mintz is EVP of Strategy at Blue State Digital, the creative and tech agency for brands and causes who want to accomplish great things.
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