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By Joshua Belhumeur

Corporate Social Activism

Social media has democratized the bully pulpit and given the average person relentless exposure to content and conversations on a myriad of social issues. This, only further aggravated by algorithms favoring outrage (emotion = engagement = ad revenue) and the inherent sense of urgency a digitally connected world creates, has propelled us into an era of casual activism where the constant crusade for social progress has become a more significant part of the human experience.

Over the same period, the concept of the “purpose-driven brand” — influenced by thought leaders like Simon Sinek and the 50 million+ people that watched and shared his TED Talk “Start With Why” and Whole Foods Co-CEO John Mackey’s bestseller Conscious Capitalism — has become a guiding philosophy in boardrooms, classrooms and marketing teams. Beyond the moral imperative to combat the social and environmental destruction of “profit-at-all-costs” thinking, there is a compelling business case for it too. Consumers are increasingly more mindful of their choices, looking to patronize businesses that share their values. And employees are more intrinsically motivated to perform well when they find deeper meaning in their work.

With these two trends moving side-by-side, we are seeing the early stages of a paradigm shift for the role of business within society. If a brand is to genuinely be purpose-driven in an era of casual activism, it must boldly take positions on social and political issues and empower its customers to participate in shaping a better society.

A new take on social responsibility

Since the 1960s, Corporate Social Responsibility has been rooted in the idea that businesses should attempt to minimize societal harm and maximize societal benefit in the pursuit of profit-generating activities. The CSR model often presumes businesses have an innate negative impact on the world and therefore must work to explicitly offset that impact, as if it’s a scorecard where the pluses and minuses must reach equilibrium.

Purpose-driven brands should reject this assertion and reframe the conversation by adopting a culture of Corporate Social Activism (CSA).

Most companies are cultural bystanders, late adopters of social trends no matter what they profess their values to be or what their leadership believes to be true and right. In 2018, a survey of 324 marketers revealed only 21.4% felt it appropriate for a brand to take a stance on “politically charged” issues. The rest attribute fear of alienating customers and employees and drawing unwanted negative press as barriers to becoming engaged.

In contrast, CSA brands are early adopters of social movements. They take sides. They advocate for public policy and use their considerable reach, influence, and resources to activate their stakeholders to participate.

CSR (1.0) CSA (2.0)
Organizations operate responsibly within the current “societal norms.”

Organizations heroically stand for, and shape, the society they want.

Philanthropy, typically with “universal” causes like cancer, kids, puppies, and veterans. Often barely relevant to brand purpose.

Activism, on more niche passion points that are directly relevant to brand purpose and aligned with business stakeholders.

Inoffensive, traditional, forgettable

Bold, authentic, energizing, shareable

Good works for the community and more positive brand perception from consumers. Contribute to substantial social change and adopt passionate and loyal brand advocates.

The business case for Corporate Social Activism

A study commissioned by Wunderman, in partnership with Penn Schoen Berland, found that 79% of consumers aged 18-65 in the US say brands must actively demonstrate “they understand and care about me” before they consider purchasing. The same study also found 89% of American consumers say that they are loyal to brands that share their values. As Jamie Gutfruend, former Global CMO of Wunderman, put it: “brands are required to operate in consumer culture and not just within their own category.”

In the era of casual activism, brands that operate in the culture are brands that practice Corporate Social Activism. In fact, when Sprout Social asked consumers this question directly, they found two-thirds preferred brands take a stand on social and political issues.

If consumers overwhelmingly stake their brand loyalty on shared values it’s clear that, despite conventional wisdom, brand activism presents far more of an opportunity than a risk. Consumers will reward brands that actively champion the values they care about. And given that people now trust companies more than politicians and the media, brands are well-positioned to help lead social movements.

How to become a Corporate Social Activism practitioner

The most effective Corporate Social Activism approach doesn’t operate in a silo of marketing, corporate social responsibility or government affairs; it’s intertwined through all aspects of the brand experience and baked into the directive of the company from the C-Suite down. For these brands, customers are more likely to see and believe in the brand purpose.


Perhaps the best example of a CSA brand is Patagonia, the outdoor retailer that is “in business to save our home planet.”

They have crafted a guiding purpose that underlies their activism:

We believe the environmental crisis has reached a critical tipping point. Without commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, defend clean water and air, and divest from dirty technologies, humankind as a whole will destroy our planet’s ability to repair itself. At Patagonia, the protection and preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours. It’s the reason we’re in business and every day’s work.

Over the years Patagonia has taken many bold actions in their fight to save the planet,  including suing the Trump administration over the protection of public lands, making significant investments into grassroots advocacy tools and campaigns for their stakeholders, and helping their customers repair their worn out clothes instead of encouraging the purchasing of new ones, backed by a “Buy Less” advocacy campaign.

Through these initiatives that, on the surface, seem to work against profitability or be distractions from the core retail business, Patagonia has experienced explosive growth and enjoyed great loyalty (and love) from their customers. More people buying their long lasting / repairable jackets vs. cheaper, disposable jackets from other retailers means less waste for the planet. And more profit helps pay for more of their environmental protection initiatives.

Activism is good for the business. And the business is good for the planet.

For brands that want to pursue CSA, there are three stages of activism based on the level of political engagement and necessary effort.

  • Level 1: Align and promote other social causes that share your purpose. Nike adopted Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson and by extension, became associated with his activism against police brutality and the marginalization of minority communities.
  • Level 2: Lead campaigns to advocate for the causes you care about. REI #OptOutside campaign kept their stores closed for Black Friday and asked their customers to enjoy the outdoors instead of participating in a consumerist frenzy.
  • Level 3: Activate consumers to directly influence public policy. New Belgium Brewing Company called on its customers to lobby their representatives for the legalization of industrial hemp.

In our current landscape, brands rarely operate at the highest level of CSA. However, we predict this will rapidly change over the next five years as companies like Patagonia continue to succeed and a more sophisticated advocacy technology landscape continues to collaborate with for-profit companies.

This intersection of brand advertising, customer experience design, and grassroots advocacy will require specialized knowledge from the creative agency partners that work with CSA brands.

What’s next?

While a handful of brands have been practicing some form of activism for decades now, the dialogue around brand activism has only become relevant in recent years, likely due to the election of Donald Trump and the associated “reality check” it gave the world about the power and influence of digital media on our political landscape and what’s at stake in overcoming global challenges like climate change.

We see Corporate Social Activism as a framework to help navigate our new culture, much the same way Corporate Social Responsibility rose to prominence in parallel with the environmentalism and labor movements of the 60s.

As Gen Y and Z begin to control the majority of purchasing power and corporate leadership over time, we will likely see a dramatic shift toward the authentically purpose-driven brand, not just as a marketing veneer. As the Lovell Corporation found in their survey, those born between 1994 and 2001 are driven more by purpose, passion, and impact than any preceding generation.

In short, businesses shouldn’t exist to make a profit; they make a profit in order to exist and fulfill their true mission. Those who don’t subscribe to this philosophy will struggle to compete in a market full of better informed, instantly connected, and passionately purpose-driven people.

Do you want to be a Corporate Social Activist, shaping a better world while earning the trust and loyalty of your stakeholders, or will you be just another cultural bystander?

By Joshua Belhumeur