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Artifacts: Does Every Brand Need to be a Changemaker?

By Mike Fox

The world is shrinking. Once a globe of disparate pursuits is now inextricably linked by interfaces that reveal our motivations, for better and for worse. This connectivity has empowered everyone, from large organizations to a single child with an iPhone to be agents of change. That power isn’t always recognized, but it’s there. No one individual effort ever feels like it’s transforming the world, until suddenly it is. 

 

This is why we believe brands — armed with resources, influence, creativity, and of course, people — are tasked with being changemakers. It’s an awesome responsibility. It’s also difficult to get right. There’s a perceived contrast around making the world better and making money. This duality of altruism and profit intimidates brands from activism, as if the choice is to be one or the other. Instead, many choose to opt-out of tense conversations with the belief that opting out won’t alienate consumers. At Hyperquake, our job is to look at trends and uncover truths that help our clients move people to act. And here’s the truth: brands that opt-out have already alienated today’s consumers. Change is divisive, but passivity is fatal. 

 

88% of US consumers believe that companies have the power to influence societal change, and 78% feel they should address the issues facing us (Global Strategy Group, 2016). Consumers today are not shy about confronting social issues. In a June survey conducted by Edelman, 74% say a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important. 60% of Americans say that brands must take a stand and speak out on racial injustice. And 67% say that how businesses react to matters such as Black Lives Matter will permanently affect their decision to buy from the company (Morning Consult, 2020).

Photo Credit: Patagonia

The alienation brands worry about is in reality more likely to occur when they do nothing. What decisions you make in these tensions will create some divisiveness and may challenge your overall business goals, but if it’s authentic to who you are as an organization and it’s grounded by the values you share with your consumers, you’ll earn greater loyalty from those you want to connect with. That you made a choice that could conflict with your bottom line is the clearest indication of that authenticity. Some will undoubtedly reject your brand, but to quote the CEO of a company celebrated for its convictions, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, “If you’re not pissing off 50% of the people, you’re not trying hard enough.” When you make a choice rooted in your truth and the values you lead with, those bothered by it were never going to substantially impact your growth to begin with.

Photo Credit: Nike

We’ve seen notable brands make these choices. The list is sure to grow as demands for social justice and a more equitable world increase. Nike famously stood with Colin Kaepernick’s controversial protest against racial injustice, creating a campaign to support it. Since then, Nike has created subsequent campaigns advocating for Black Lives Matter and been the subject of social and political outrage, of which they’ve stood firm in their decisions because it is true to their purpose and the values they share with their consumers. That’s authenticity — formerly appreciated, now demanded. 

 

Nike’s recent declarations can clash with their decisions in previous ethical encounters, but brands shouldn’t be afraid to take a position they believe in because of a threat of contradictions. This fear creates the very social paralysis people are exhausted by. Staying relevant and living your purpose when it’s challenged starts with accepting that nothing about it is simple or clear. How your brand navigates current and potential tensions may create inconsistencies, but progress is rarely a straight line and truth is never easy. Brands and consumers have to allow for nuance. 

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good in an effort to change. Be a brand that invests in the evolution you seek, even if it scares you — especially if it scares you. Change comes from our will not to succeed, but to try. 

What is worthy of scrutiny is acknowledging the fine line between activism and opportunism. Consumers know when this line is crossed. What side your brand falls on is determined by an authentic commitment to your purpose and values. And as we move forward, in the wake of an economic crisis, a reinvigorated conversation around race and equality, and the tragedy of this pandemic, fine lines are being drawn deeper, more vigorously — more personally. We believe brands are like people. A brand’s activism should be personal. 

 

Expect the volume of these choices to intensify. More brands will not just navigate, but help draw the lines in social and political tensions and make a declaration for which side they stand on. It will create divisiveness among a broader consumer set, but strengthen their connection to consumers who share their values. And in our shrinking world, connection is paramount to the change we want to see.

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