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Think before you act with brand activism

Alex Louey
18 July 2017 4 minute readShare
Anonymous, activist

If you have to consider brand activism for too long as a marketing strategy, you’re doing it wrong, writes Alex Louey.

SME owners are wary of brand activism. In light of the recent influx of brands jumping on the activism bandwagon, this may come as somewhat of a surprise. Two-thirds (67.6 per cent) of My Business readers didn’t think they should add their business’ voice to social debates. But is this really surprising?

The majority of My Business readers will likely be operating SMEs, where the stakes are much higher when it comes to marketing. They generally have less money to spend, and each marketing campaign has to work as hard as possible to generate serious ROI.

A failed marketing campaign, or worse still, one that erases sales potential for the company, could be devastating.

Thanks to social media, many SMEs who thought they could push their marketing campaigns further for less have quickly realised that it is not that easy and can have some devastating effects, like Aldi or Qantas did. The difference is that they don’t have the reputation or marketing clout to fix it.

This is much the same with brand activism. It is easy to believe you can jump on the back of perceived popular social movements such as marriage equality, but the reality is a lot different to this.

And again, a wrong move by an SME could put their revenue stream back for months, if not years.

Breaking down the example of Qantas

Let’s take the example of marriage equality and talk about Qantas again. Note that despite its social media fails, which are numerous, it keeps jumping back up and going again. That is the benefit of being a massive company with huge budgets and little competition.

Qantas has been a significant backer of marriage equality in Australia. But here are the hard facts: it is very uncertain as to whether marriage equality would be given the go ahead in Australia if put to a plebiscite. That’s just how the numbers seemingly sit.

This isn’t a debate about the merits of marriage quality, but using it for a brand activism campaign. So Qantas, a national airline which counts virtually every conceivable demographic as a potential customer, has backed marriage equality despite the fact that it is uncertain whether or not the majority of Australia would vote for it.

That may sound like a dangerous tactic: Qantas could potentially be alienating more than half its market, but in this case, it has largely worked.

The reason is simple. There is a true connection between Qantas and marriage equality in a few different ways. Most obviously, that CEO Alan Joyce is openly gay, so the issue affects him on a personal level.

Secondly, that the majority of media coverage is positively pushing marriage equality, leading to a safer marketing springboard for the company.

And finally, Qantas’ company culture and values match up with its push. As such, the employees seem to have gotten right behind the campaign, which included painting a plane in support of Mardi Gras.

Importantly as well, Qantas hasn’t shoved its support in the face of Australia, instead choosing well-timed and appropriate methods of showing its backing. But this hasn’t always gone down well.

Recently the now infamous backlash from legendary Australia tennis player Margaret Court gained significant media coverage, as well as the pie-in-the-face episode for Mr Joyce while speaking in Perth.

Because Qantas’ support of marriage equality has been a long-planned one to which it is highly committed, and has deep and significant roots, the company and Mr Joyce have been able to bounce back from criticism and continue to promote its stance.

In other words, it’s authentic and the strategy is well-thought-out. Mr Joyce would have spent all of a millisecond in deciding to back marriage equality, but potentially months or even years in figuring out how to do it well.

The successes and the fails

There are more good examples of positive brand activism.

For instance, England is struggling with serious issues regarding immigration, so Kenco decided to divert revenue to training young Hondurans to be coffee farmers, get them out of gangs, and allow them to have good lives in Honduras.

But there are also fails. In 2010, Pepsi funnelled marketing money into funding not-for-profits or individuals with great community ideas. The campaign ran before the super bowl but sales dropped.

There simply wasn’t a direct connection between what Pepsi did and what it was supporting.

So what does it all mean for an SME owner?

Turning back to the initial statement, if you have to think about brand activism for too long as a marketing strategy, you’re doing it wrong. If you truly believe in something, and your company truly fits in with that premise, then it should be an obvious and natural fit that doesn’t require much thought in regard to whether or not you should do it.

How you roll it out, and ensure you keep it appropriate and in tone, is where it will take time and effort.

Let’s be very clear. While brand activism is a marketing strategy, it shouldn’t be considered as one when deciding whether to use it or not, and it certainly shouldn’t be your primary strategy.

The whole point of social activism is not to increase sales. As a result, brand activism shouldn’t be thought of like this either. The moment you start to use a social issue for no other reason than to boost your sales, savvy consumers will see right through it.

Also realise that even the best laid plans can sometimes come undone or cop a pie in the face. You can have the most detailed marketing plan, create new initiatives, have a designated app, make a large donation and choose a well-known spokesperson to front your cause. But like anything in your business, you need to think clearly about your motivations, identify the possible outcomes, and prepare yourself properly.

If you’re in doubt, it’s much safer to stick with the 67.6 per cent of fellow My Business readers.

Brands need to properly understand what their values are and how they are aligned with their markets. When these elements become confused, things can go horribly wrong.

Ultimately activism as a marketing strategy is a powerful means for a business to engage with the modern market; but if you have no real conviction, don’t do it for the hell of it.

Alex Louey is the co-founder and managing director of Appscore.

Think before you act with brand activism
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Alex Louey

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