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3 Lessons for Brands on How to (Credibly) Drive Social Change

The most creative marketers bring their passion to help brands drive positive change. But what does that actually look like? Here are three key takeaways for marketers looking to stay relevant in a changing world, and take a stand for good. 

For many in the creative sector, the promise of working with brands is due to their storytelling power and potential to drive new narratives — narratives around belonging, sustainable futures, feminism, identity ... the list goes on. 

Within the marketing landscape, the brightest minds flock — not to grow businesses they don’t care about, but with the ambition to bring their creativity and passion to drive positive change forward; using the influence, power and platform of global brands to do so. 

But what does driving change actually look like? And how can brands that want to become more “purpose-driven” embrace this change, credibly?

Last month, I curated a conversation at European conference OnBrand, to learn more about this — with Isabel Crabtree-Condor, Knowledge Broker at Oxfam; Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock, founder of Soursop; Alex Weller, Marketing Director Europe at Patagonia; and Nadine de Ridder, founder of We Are All Activists. Here are three key takeaways for marketers looking to stay relevant in a changing world, and take a stand for good. 

1. Challenging a narrative requires collective action 

While some brands might want to position themselves as “changing a narrative,” Crabtree-Condor from Oxfam was quick to remind us that a single brand cannot change a narrative. Narratives are complex, interwoven stories and understandings about the world, she stressed; and though we all have a role in shaping narratives, no one actor can drive this change alone.

Reminding brands to stay humble and leave their ego at the door, she emphasised the importance of collective action.

“If you can accept that a cause isn’t something you can hijack or use to make yourself more visible, then your starting point is radically different. It’s important to remember that it's not about you; it's about collaborating with others and contributing.”

2. Brands can play a pivotal role by supporting grassroots movements

Weller, when reflecting on how Patagonia continues to “get it right,” stressed the importance of making a long-term commitment to an issue and working to understand where and how their resources as a brand can make a difference. 

Reflecting on Patagonia’s approach to supporting The Blue Heart of Europe — the last untamed rivers left on the continent — he outlined that the first step was consultation with civil society organizations and those already at the forefront of change. He shared:

“As a large company, it requires a lot of sensitivity to support people who have made it their life’s work to generate positive change. So, before anything, our role is to gain a deep understanding of what those on the frontlines are going through and what they want to achieve — and then ask ourselves: What is the unique thing we can bring or do to increase the chance of success?”

3. Change starts with changing your business model

Brands must ask themselves, and be prepared to have an honest answer to, the question: “Why pursue ‘activism’ in the first place?” de Ridder stressed. She noted that while many are eager to claim the position of ‘brand activist,’ they’re not willing to pay the price that comes with it. She asserted:

“There may be praise and approval; but also resistance, lack of recognition, backlashes and ‘canceling.’ How many brands are truly willing to make this sacrifice to be able to support their claim of wanting to change the world for good?"

Noting the inherent dichotomy between advertising and activism, the conversation quickly turned to reimagining business models. de Ridder dove straight to the heart, expressing her dismay at what she perceives as an inability for most companies to redesign their business to find an authentic place for activism. 

Weller echoed this sentiment, saying: “Capitalism is fundamentally broken. As long as businesses serve one predominant objective, which is to deliver value to shareholders or to accelerate the growth of their business in order to sell, then everything that follows behind that is subservient to that need.”

Brand activism — an urgent call to action

Gone are the days when a faint promise to “do good” would cut it; the game has clearly changed and the stakes are higher than ever. And with this new landscape comes new expectations. As consumers, we want transparency; the ability to peel behind the layers of a company and see long-term commitment to a cause — not just a new “campaign.” 

There are countless studies to back up this shift in expectation: The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer is just one of these — confirming that 64 percent of consumers want brands to do more on societal issues; while 76 percent say that CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than wait for the government to impose it.

Clearly, there are many ways a brand can make a difference; it just requires commitment, vision and bravery. At a time when we’re facing multiple crises all at once — not to mention, we’re living in the midst of a global pandemic — the need for brands, and the private sector at large, to play a role in creating a better future has never been more urgent. In fact, that future quite literally depends on it.