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How brands are using digital and social to drive activism

Elouise Kelly

Managing Director

Ogilvy Johannesburg


How brands are using digital and social to drive activism

There was a time, not too long ago, when brands and businesses could stand apart from the issue of “politics,” and simply focus on brand messaging and using the mass media to drive it.

However, those were the days of one-way communication, when corporations had almost exclusive access to the mass media and could shape the narrative around their brands, while standing aloof from the political issues of the day.

Those days are well and truly behind us. Social media is the new mass media, and it’s not a one-way communication medium. All of us have the right—and the tools—to speak out on any issues that affect us and our society.

Our audiences and the people in our target markets are stakeholders in our brands, and they have opinions that are every bit as important as those of brand managers, CMOs, and CEOs. Conversely, while people have a stake in brands, brands also have a stake in shaping the values we live as a society.

Brands have vast power and can drive social change. Recent years have seen the rise of “activist brands,” one taking a stance on social issues related to their products and their sector, or simply trying to drive the change they would like to see in the world.

One of the most visible brand activists is Nike, which wholeheartedly supported the position taken by one of their sponsored athletes, American football player Colin Kaepernick. On August 26th, 2016 Kaepernick was seen sitting on the bench during the national anthem at an NFL game. He later told journalists this was a protest against injustices, oppression, and police brutality. This was the start of Kaepernick’s public activism. It also helped drive the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.

By 2017, Kaepernick found himself out of the league, as no team was willing to sign him. Then, in September 2018, using all of its social platforms, Nike launched the powerful Dream Crazy ad featuring Kaepernick exhorting viewers to “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ad caused a firestorm of controversy, with some fans burning his jersey, but millions more voicing their support. To date this ad has had more than 29 million views and caused a 31% jump in online sales the days after the ad ran, according to Edison Trends.

The move by Nike was quite strategic and especially relevant to its younger consumers.  It inspired debate between young and old, not only in America, but around the world. Nike, however, has a history of quite literally putting its money where its mouth is and standing up for its brand principles. Nike also uses digital and social platforms to spark awareness and debate, ultimately creating a platform for activism.

In South Africa, we have no shortage of pressing social issues, and several brands are willing to stand up and be counted. It’s all very well to hedge one’s bets on controversial topics, but on some issues, doing nothing implies tacit support of the status quo and is itself a political stance.

A brave example of brand activism was Carling Black Label’s #NoExcuse campaign. This included a live activation at a Chiefs-Pirates derby, perhaps the nation’s premier football event. A troupe of women singers subverted popular song Masambe Nono into a critique of violence against women—often perpetrated under the influence of alcohol after football matches.

This certainly stirred emotions and would have struck close to home for the perpetrators of such violence, many of whom may be Carling drinkers. However, to its credit, Carling drew a line, and refused to be silent or even impartial on issues of abuse. The event trended on Twitter and helped to increase Black Label social media mentions by 823%, while boosting positive brand sentiment by 86%. 

Stablemates Castle Lager similarly took a position on racial and cultural stereotyping with its #SmashTheLabel campaign. The campaign became even more relevant when the brand used it as a vehicle to comment on the SuperSport/Ashwin Willemse saga which took place in May 2018. It trended on social media, sparking much needed debate on discrimination and racial stereotyping—and many lauded Caste Lager for taking such a brave stand.

Nando’s has consistently shown itself ready to wade into South Africa’s political debates. For more than a decade, its tongue-in-cheek ads have poked fun at issues such as government corruption and official materialism. Most recently, their “You People” ads called out South Africa’s version of racial stereotyping and proxy racism. Nando’s is quick on the pulse and cleverly uses its social platforms to remain topical and relevant. Fans are inspired by the funny and often brave socio-political satire.

It is a fact that while there are usually two sides to an argument, they do not always hold equal moral weight. Brands and their custodians need to interrogate issues and formulate positions on them—especially where they directly involve the brands. Trying to fudge such decisions will not necessarily work and may do more harm than taking a brave stance.

Also incredibly inspiring has been the position taken by Discovery in supporting South African women’s middle-distance athlete, Olympic and world champion Caster Semenya in her dispute with the sport’s governing body. In making her a Discovery Vitality ambassador, the brand pinned its colors to the mast, never flinched, and wholeheartedly supported Caster every step of the way in its communications.

What could have been a divisive issue of gender politics has become a nation-building journey of inspiration, as the entire country aligns behind Caster and her right to run. It is also a brand success story.

Our new media environment sees brands intimately entwined with society and its political and social issues, with instant trends and powerful digital social movements emerging almost daily. To best negotiate this space, brands must inform themselves of the issues that affect them and society at large, and work out where they stand in relation to their brand positioning.

Brand activism also requires authentic storytelling. It takes work, commitment, and not a little courage, but done successfully, it can show brands and their people to be more human, empathetic, and relevant to people’s lives—and of course more successful.