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The Rise of Brand Activism & Taking A Stand

It's no secret that the last few years have been turbulent, increasing the level of discussion and divisiveness across a whole range of social, environmental, and political issues. At the same time, pressure is increasing on brands to publicly take a stance on key subjects.

Patagonia's founder, Yvon Chouinard, believes that "if you are not upsetting 50% of the people, you are not trying hard enough." It seems like some form of backlash to corporate activism is almost guaranteed these days, with many brands finding it a tough path to navigate. However, if done authentically – taking a stance can be a powerful way to build trust, brand equity, and drive change.

Activism vs Slacktivism and the Need to Follow Through

In this day and age, staying silent and steering clear of hot-button issues is no longer the default position of brands and their CMOs. Recent research from Sprout Social reveals that two-thirds of individuals surveyed feel that it's important for brands to take a public stance on leading social and political issues. The benefits of purpose-driven efforts can also be twofold, as brands are able to promote positive and necessary social outcomes while also driving growth.

An annual study by Edelman found that 63% of consumers choose to switch, avoid, or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues. While this figure should be a powerful motivator for brands, failing to back up this marketing with any tangible actions can backfire significantly and hurt the brand more than if they never chose to engage in activism at all.

This fine balance can be seen in the recent shareholder criticism of Unilever – with major investors questioning management's 'obsession' with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business. With the company's sales growth lagging, there is pressure for CEO Alan Jope to prove that Unilever's activism and commitment to sustainability are a key driver of strong financial performance.

Wagamama's Stance on Slow Fashion

With an aim to 'tread more lightly on the earth,' Wagamama's latest eco-friendly uniform collaboration with PANGAIA is a natural progression in the company's sustainability journey. The new collection provides Wagamama employees with slow-fashion workwear that aims to set new standards for the industry – with a focus on sustainable materials and a future recycling scheme.

Looking at this campaign in a vacuum, it might be easy for some people to label the initiative as just another example of inauthentic corporate 'greenwashing.' However, Wagamama has been working hard to commit to sustainable practices across the entire business – from pledging to make 50% of their menu plant-based, reducing the plastic in their packaging to tackling food waste in their restaurants.

There might be the temptation to look at some of the incredible work that brands are doing in the activism space and immediately jump on board. However, brands need to be truly committed to the issue to properly speak on it - having done the groundwork to represent this in their own policies rather than just their marketing campaigns.

Professor Gage from The School of Marketing at UNSW sums up the growing feeling perfectly - "So we are saying, 'look, fine, you want my money? That's perfectly okay. But I want to know who you are. What do you stand for?' Because brands are expected to do more. And this is not a fad; this is not something that will go away.