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Brand Activism

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Categories: Branding

Brand Activism

5 minutes read

Brand activism (also known as CEO activism) is about brands standing up and speaking out on current issues.

The benefits of brand activism are lengthly cover in the book ‘Growth Marketing‘.

In 2017 and 2018 some CEOs started to speak out publicly, taking a stand on controversial issues. For example, CEOs have recently spoken up about social, political, and environmental issues such as climate change, income fairness, discrimination, immigration, and gun-control, to name a few. The outcome was:

  • Other companies are now dedicating more time to CEO activism (Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • Communication and marketing executives are favouring the idea of their own CEOs speaking out on issues as CEO activism is starting to being seen in a good light by consumers (Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • CEO activism can have a positive and long-term impact on corporate reputation (Weber Shandwick, 2019).

Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, says that the new report’s findings reflect the new reality that everything a company does, from its formal advertising to its CEO statements, are now brand communications and tie back into brand image. “It’s been a game-changer for companies in terms of realising that employees, customers, and communities are expecting CEOs to speak up for their company values,” says Gaines-Ross. “And this is where communications and marketing people get pulled in to the discussion.” (Beer, 2019) .


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In January 2019, Marc Pritchard, the P&G Chief Marketing Officer explained the swift and loud reaction to Gillette’s latest advert “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”. The Gillette advert is articulated around bullying and harassment. It shows behaviours men should not display, before demonstrating behaviours men, in the ad’s opinion, should have. The video challenges men to do more, to say the right thing, to act the right way, to stand up to bullies and in doing so, to get closer to their best…

Marc Pritchard, the P&G Chief Marketing Officer, acknowledges that speaking out on current issues is a risk: “We expected not everyone to respond positively, but that’s what being a leader is all about. It was time.”(Beer, 2019). Gillette’s latest advert “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” did spread like wildfire on social media and it had a huge amount of very passionate mixed reactions. Despite the fact that these reactions (mainly in the form of UGC) were mixed, the brand benefited from a lot of visibility but more importantly, it gained the hearts of consumers who think the same way on these particular issues.


Marc Pritchard said that consumers now expect brands to take stands and have points of view. Eight out of ten consumers say they prefer brands that take a stand. Taking a stand on current issues is actually a risk as not everyone is going to agree or respond positively, but that’s what being a CEO and leader is all about. You (and the brand you stand for) are not necessarily going to be popular with everyone, but by speaking out you are likely to rally a strong group of supporters (passionate consumers) who agree with what you are now clearly and vocally standing for (Beer, 2019).


Another example of brand activism is the controversial Nike advertising campaign that used Colin Kaepernick as the face of the brand. In the advert, Colin says “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.

Colin Rand Kaepernick is an American activist and American football quarterback who last played for the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League in 2016. In 2016, the football star refused to stand for the US national anthem, by taking a knee, in protest of police brutality and racism.

When Nike announced the advertising campaign featuring the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, UGC pictures emerged on social media of people burning their Nike products in protest. On Twitter, some were using the  UGC hashtags #BoycottNike and #JustBurnIt –  play on Nike’s slogan “Just Do It”. There was even a call to boycott the brand from U.S. President, Donald Trump. President Trump’s comments and his call to boycott actually led to more stars to take a knee in sport and beyond; including the tennis star Serena Williams, the basketball’s LeBron James and the singer Stevie Wonder.

There were speculations that the advertising campaign would lead to a drop in sales but this proved unfounded. In fact, online sales grew by an enormous 31% in the bank holiday weekend after the advert launched, according to researcher Edison Trends. This is what Nike had to say about the advert through its vice president of branding for North America: “We believe that Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation who has leveraged the power of sport to move the world forward.” (BBC News, 2018).


CEO or brand activism is quickly becoming the new norm, earning competitive reputational advantage(Weber Shandwick, 2019). A 2018 survey from Weber Shandwick on the company’s newest CEO activism study focussing on marketing and communications executives in the U.S., UK, and China shows that:

  • 53 percent of communications and marketing executives report their companies spend time discussing whether their CEO should speak out(Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • More than 59 percent report an increase in time spent discussing it, compared to years past(Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • Nearly 50 percent of communications and marketing executives report their CEO is prepared to speak out on issues (Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • Of those whose CEO has spoken out on hotly debated current issues, 67 percent report the activism had a positive impact on company reputation. Only 7 percent report that the reputational impact was negative(Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • Even communications and marketing executives whose CEO has been publicly silent see the potential positive impact on reputation: Half of those whose CEO has not spoken out on an issue, 51 percent say their company’s reputation would have a moderate to big advantage if their CEO were to do so (Weber Shandwick, 2019).

A 2018 survey from Weber Shandwick focusing on Communications and Marketing Executives revealed that:

  • 73 percent acknowledge there is a risk to company reputation if a CEO speaks out (Weber Shandwick, 2019).
  • Yet, 80 percent see an advantage to company reputation if the CEO were to speak out (Weber Shandwick, 2019).

While Nike was not the first brand to take social and political positions, the question was whether other brands would follow Nike’s lead and risk alienating some fans and buyers. There is already some indication that this is the case. The CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. said it’s taking a position against gun violence, which the company acknowledges is likely alienate some buyers but will attract others. Indeed, the days of high profile brands “playing it safe” politically may be coming to a close (Sterling, 2018).

Expectations are growing for business leaders to speak out on political and social issues. Companies must anticipate which issues affect their business and challenge their values, and be prepared to address them(Weber Shandwick, 2019). In 2018, four in ten communications and marketing executives (41 percent) say their CEO is better prepared to respond to issues compared to one year ago (Weber Shandwick, 2019).


However, brand integrity (authenticity) is really important here because companies can run into trouble if advertising or a CEO makes a statement around an issue, only to have the public find out the company’s practices don’t follow those same principles. As a result, more companies are planning ahead to avoid any conflicting signals that could undermine any given statement. Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, says, “Over the past few years, companies have become very prepared and ready so that they don’t speak out on issues that will be a vulnerability for them,” she says. “If you’re going to speak out about diversity, you’d better make sure your executive and board are diverse. There is progress, but companies need to make sure they check all the right boxes before they speak out.”(Beer, 2019).


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Consol Efomi, Digital Strategist | efomi

Digital Marketing Strategist (BSc, MSc)
Author of ‘Growth Marketing

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NB: The rapid changes that comes from digital technologies, marketing and business mean definitions are forever changing. Please feel free to join the conversation.

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