Becoming a naturally activist brand

For long-term brand activism to become a reality, it needs to become a less fleeting, more natural, day-to-day aspect of business. It needs to be built into the operational fabric – in the same way that product development, marketing and sales are. Here, Brand Strategist Patrick Evans and Creative Director of We Are Social, Nicolas Duménil explore how to make activism a natural part of any brand.

Patrick Evans Independent Consultant and Brand Strategist

Why purpose-led brands find activism natural

No matter how appealing it is to think of companies as predictable, profit-driven machines, they simply aren’t. Companies are run by humans. Just as you can’t eliminate bias or creativity from a human, you can’t eliminate those characteristics from a company run by humans. One such human characteristic is purpose. Purpose gives a brand the chance to move beyond mere utility and toward meaning – something we can't explain with profit and loss, or quality of product. This is because a brand’s purpose comes from inside to reflect an optimism, not of how the world works, now but ho w it should work. In 2016, REI earned the Cannes Lions Titanium Grand Prix for the anti-Black Friday #OptOutside. The piece of work was built on a deep human insight: even though humans love snagging a television for less, we don't like lining up at a store before dawn to make it happen. So, REI closed its stores. It encouraged its members to forgo deep discounts in favour of hitting the trail. REI went deeper, connecting its brand purpose – “to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors, for all" – with was potentially controversial brand activism, especially in the sometimes conservative, and often male and white, Outdoor category.

As a member-owned co-op founded to make outdoor gear affordable for all, REI opted to give its voice to its members. From people of colour and indigenous groups to the LGBTQ community, REI engaged often under-represented grassroots outdoor organisations and activists and amplified their voices across its website, magazine and social media.

With a clear purpose embedded in the business, REI’s initiative was a natural extension of #OptOutside. “I saw just how much REI supports the LGBTQ community on the back end of the company,” said Pattie Gonia, the drag-queen alter ego of photographer Wyn Wiley, expanding on some of the factors that helped her decide to partner with REI. “They hire LGBTQ staff, they provide LGBTQ community at their company.” If REI didn’t live its purpose internally, it wouldn’t have been able to engage those activists and the public at large in a crucial cultural discussion. "I say no to any brand that has a Pride campaign because I support the brands that support me and my community year-round, not just one month of the year,” added Pattie. “It is incredible the efforts that REI very humbly goes about behind the scenes to support non-profits in the outdoor space that are really the glue to get truly everyone outdoors." REI’s brand activism is only natural for the same reason any individual’s activism is natural. It comes from an internal realisation that there is a wrong to right and our actions can help move an issue in a positive direction, pushing humanity forward with purpose.

Nicolas Duménil Creative Director, We Are Social

What will today’s consumers value tomorrow?

Out of lockdown, new habits have emerged for everyone, from companies and individuals to Gen Z and Baby Boomers. We have had to make do without face-to-face social contact in order to protect ourselves – which has resulted in an uplift across all social networks. Before, we seemed to be heading towards a "digital detox". Now, paradoxically, our identities have been replaced by many digital avatars, travelling across platforms, without borders. Many of us have been surprised that we can deliver the same value working entirely virtually. Unsurprisingly, the first to adopt what is commonly known as the "new normal" were Facebook and Google, who made the home office their new CSR value on the job market – something that was also for the good of the environment. Consumers of all ages are also getting used to the emergence of these new forms of expression as our days become punctuated by sports events transferring to video game formats, fashion week without models and even homemade ads.

This period has also redefined our priorities, forcing us to rethink what is of value. In an instant, self-protection has become a global issue and in turn perhaps the greatest of values. In the past, we would greet one another and include an automatic follow up of "how are you?", but rarely paid attention to the answer (or, indeed, gave a true response when asked). Now, caring about the other's well-being has become a real need.

The multiplication of initiatives promoting solidarity has forced brands to make themselves useful and to take an interest in the wellbeing of their community (like LVMH, which transformed its production lines to help healthcare personnel). All the brands that have remained true to their DNA and that have initiated spontaneous acts and authentic speeches have enjoyed positive feedback. But apart from the "being together" that each one of us wants for the end of this pandemic, as well as the awareness of the importance of consuming better (e.g. with more sustainable agriculture), it is the notion of what it means to "be human" that now has value in the eyes of consumers and brands.

Just as Saint-Laurent is emancipating itself from the seasons for its next collections and restoring the value of time, those brands that move forward with empathy and integrate this relational factor in the long term will be those that will anchor themselves to the next generation of consumers.

“After every disaster, there is a change of culture.”

Boris Cyrulnik