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By Joshua Belhumeur

Authenticity & Corporate Social Activism

We believe corporate social activism can be a positive force in our world—so much so that we made it our primary focus as a creative agency. Given that corporations have an outsized influence on our culture and have the resources and platform that marginalized people don’t, they have an opportunity to use their position to accelerate social change. 

However, many corporations are beginning to exploit social justice movements as a means to boost their bottom line. This is when brand activism becomes more of a content strategy than a commitment. Not only does it have a high potential for backfiring (see Pepsi + Kendall Jenner) but it can actually cause genuine harm, feeding more cynicism and ultimately disengagement from the people we are supposed to be inspiring.

Assuming you have good intentions, it’s important you pursue brand activism from an authentic position. That means:

  • Activism is built into your business model. For example, we have a few clients in the economic empowerment space that are using their institutional knowledge and resources to create more lending opportunities for BIPOC business owners. By doing so they can speak authentically about economic inequities in a way brands like Pepsi shouldn’t.
  • Activism is specific and measurable. Posting a positive platitude on Earth Day about caring for the environment just creates white noise. Suing the federal government to protect a national monument is specific and measurable. Activating your customers to contact their congresspersons and advocate for a specific bill is another good example of a specific and measurable action.
  • Activism aims to either change minds or change policy. If your plan for brand activism isn’t working to accomplish one of these two goals it is more likely brand virtue signaling. Be sure to understand your audience and what you are trying to get them to do in order to achieve a broader social goal.

We will continue to see more and more corporations exploiting activism as lifestyle marketing instead of genuine changemaking (and continue to face blowback). We just hope that doesn’t detract from the opportunity we see to recalibrate our economic system to be less focused on profit-at-all-costs and more on making people’s lives better. Because in our current unsustainable version of capitalism, it seems the most activist stance a brand can take is to put people first.

By Joshua Belhumeur