Are activist brands just dictators on steroids?

What ad would you have been the proudest of making? The one from United Colours of Benetton on the left or the one from Patagonia on the right? If you’re not familiar with the term activist brands let me explain. Over two decades now, brands have become more and more vocal about their role in society and is using that voice to advocate for everything from fighting climate change like for example Patagonia to redefining the notion of beauty to be more inclusive like for example Dove. These endeavours typically pitch one world view against another, and tension is created. One group of people against another group of people. When Nike in 2018 ran an ad featuring football quarterback and American civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick to voice up against police brutality and racial injustice it created a divide in the US and people took to the streets, protested on social media and begin burning Nike shoes. No doubt these ads are highly controversial and effective in creating conversation, media coverage and ultimately sales.

The Kaepernick ad generated a massive sales spike and is Nike’s most viewed ad to date. As companies are responding to the environmental and social pressure from society, most marketing folks aspire to this activist tactic and build their portfolio of brands like a pyramid pushing their brands upwards to become societal saviours sitting up their in brand heaven and looking down at us all as they save society from all its ills. Is it trust-worthy when every tooth paste brand in the supermarket aisle is some kind of Greta Thunberg or Messiah? Too many heroes? Too many Gods to worship? I mean, think about how many heroes you truly look up to? I mean heroes that change shit for the better on the scale of like Nelson Mandela. A handful? Why should this be different when we’re talking about brands?

We live in divisive times, what activism is needed?

We live in an incredibly divisive time where people are pursued, ridiculed or even viciously attacked for their views. Our democracies are under threat from authoritarian regimes and from within. And then brands add more gasoline to the bomb fire to sell toilet paper rolls or washing detergent. Take climate change. A state of the climate report from scientists across the world, The IPCC report, calls for everyone to mobilise and act. We need brands to be inclusive, not exclusive. We need brands to bring people together and build bridges – not add war like, anti-democratic rhetoric as is becoming increasingly common place. Take an attempt from Patagonia to interfere in politics by adding a tag to a pair of board shorts reading in clean sans-serif stitching “Vote the assholes out” – is this the way we want to sell clothing?

It’s a sign of a well-functioning democracy when we can debate and exchange views about how we view society without turning violent or bullying each other.

We all live on this beautiful blue planet. Dear brand, if you truly want to be an activist leave the hero cape behind and your self-glorifying rhetoric about your world-saving power. Instead, why not try to empower all of us? Why not try to create an inclusive movement? Try to reach out to that other side? (Might even help you reach a new target group). True activism is empowering all of us to become activists. Leaders, brands and organisations can do that by changing their navel-gazing, self-important worldview away from their own role as a change agent and instead ask one simple question: WHO can you help us become? That’s when you help people fight their own biases or step up and live more climate friendly. I’m curious to hear your opinion about activism and brands. The choice is yours – what ad would you choose? Share in comments.


© 2020 Thomas Kolster. All Rights Reserved.

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