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Activism in marketing: A ploy or authentic advocacy?

December 17, 2021
Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

When international relations junior Caiden Felkey peruses through the ice cream aisle of the store, considering his choices, he is more likely to select a tub of Ben & Jerry’s than any other brand. He said this is because of the company’s activism and advocacy for human rights.

For the entirety of Ben & Jerry’s existence, co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have made their thoughts loud and clear through their marketing. The brand’s social media and the designs of its ice cream containers exhibit Cohen and Greenfield’s passion for ridding the world of injustice.

Ben and Jerry’s is not the only brand to do this, though. Many companies around the world incorporate activism into their marketing, but the question becomes one of authenticity.

“When you think of it,” advertising professor Nora Rifon said. “You might want to consider there’s a slight difference between doing cause-related marketing and cause sponsorship and doing corporate socially responsible actions. So, when a company is being socially responsible, one way to do it is to just do good things and not do bad things. When a company engages in cause-related marketing, then this is definitely an alliance designed to exploit that sponsorship to make money, to have consumers come over to buy that brand.”

Ben & Jerry’s is one of the companies that does, in fact, practice what they preach, which is what makes them different from most other companies that pick and choose when and how to support certain social issues.

“They actually mean what they say,” Felkey said. “They employ a lot of people from (minority groups), they employ a lot of LGBT people. They actually stand for what they believe in, and they not only just advocate, but they go out and do things that make it better for certain communities.”

Felkey is not alone in thinking this information is extremely important.

“People judge the motives,” Rifon said. “People want to know that it’s authentic and sincere. Otherwise, it won’t matter to their purchase behavior.”

It’s not only the activism of the company that draws people like Felkey to Ben & Jerry’s. It’s also the activism of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield themselves.

“They’ve been arrested for protesting before,” Felkey said. “They do a lot of in-the-community work as well, which I can really appreciate.”

Patagonia is another company that has incorporated some sort of activism into its brand.

“Their mission statement is about doing business and (saving) our planet, our home,” Ph.D. candidate in information and media Iago Muraro said. “They have been doing that for decades. ... They have been connected with the environmental causes. Their entire business model is not only about their product but about the cause.”

The issue comes when a brand only advocates as a marketing ploy. This is seen in June, pride month, as companies jump at the opportunity to plaster a rainbow on their packaging, only to remove it on midnight of July 1.

“Some companies will leave it longer just to kind of say, ‘Yeah, we’re still here,’” Felkey said. “Even then, you got to look into it and see, are they doing this for the publicity, or are they doing this because they mean it?”

So, how does this work? How does activism from companies really secure them better business? Muraro explained the psychology behind how consumers approach this matter.

“You want to be the change that you want to see in the world,” he said. “The brands that become part of your life, that you give them the permission to enter your home, to be in your bathroom, to be in your clothes. ... You want those brands to be congruent with that. So, those brands, they become part of the story that you are telling about yourself.”

This is why it is significant companies examine who their main consumers are and decide which cause they would be more prone to support or be passionate about.

“If I’m a maker of female contraceptives, so to speak, then I might want to align myself with maybe Planned Parenthood or women’s reproductive rights,” Rifon said, providing an example.

Coca-Cola is a company that has done this and has been quite successful. In some of its advertising, it appeals to people in the LGBTQ+ community and their allies.

“When you think about what opening happiness means, to (the) LGBT community, to the LGBT consumers of Coca-Cola, (it) would be living in a world without homophobia,” Muraro said. “So, then they can use their advertising to add a meaning to their current brand positioning by advocating for a cause that is congruent with their values.”

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Of course, not everyone in the world holds the same values and shares the same opinions, even if they take a liking to the same brand. That is where companies have to take a look at the risk they take by supporting a cause.

For example, when George Floyd was killed by a police officer in 2020, Ben & Jerry’s took to their website to share what they believed needed to be done, saying, “We must dismantle White supremacy” and “Silence is not an option.”

When posting about this on Twitter, Ben & Jerry’s received lots of support. However, the company also received comments like this one: “Looks like we about to switch ice cream companies.”

However, a company choosing to stay neutral in order to not lose business from either side of a social conflict or controversy often backfires.

“Sometimes, if you just want to stay in the middle, it might not be profitable because you’re going to have pushback from both sides of the political spectrum, too, (asking), ‘What is your stance on this?’” Muraro said.

Companies are always going to try to market themselves as activists simply because it works. This means it is on consumers to figure out who is authentic and who is not, and Felkey says that doing some research will reveal just that.

“I’d say the best advice that I could give is just do a little bit of digging,” he said. “If you do just that minimal amount, it could really reveal some things for you that you really agree with, or you really don’t agree with, but I always recommend, just look into the products that you’re buying (and) the companies that you’re buying it from.”

Rifon strongly encourages those who are able to use their wallets to support issues that they care about. She has studied this, and she knows that it works.

“In my opinion, the world’s on fire,” Rifon said. “If we don’t hold our corporations accountable (for) their actions, then it’s not going to get better.”

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