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Storming the barricades for a better world – is that credible?

Brands that claim to we 'woke' must be consistent

Activist campaigns are springing up like mushrooms. How sincere are these brands? Because until recently, they were still trying to make us feel insecure, unhealthy and miserable.

We live in an attention economy: a time in which the attention of the consumer is worth gold to marketing professionals. They are continuously looking for ways to stay connected with the constantly changing consumer experience. And to understand how you can attract that attention – and hold it, you look at the generation that is at the forefront of the pack – the leaders in development. Millennials? So last year. Now that this group is slowly moving towards 40, the leading role transfers to Generation Z (young adults who are now between 16 and 24).

Where millennials are characterized by a need for authenticity and sustainability, generation Z takes it to the next level: they are woke. This translates as follows: they’re alert to racism, social discrimination and injustice. GenZ is increasingly looking for companies where she can see her woke mentality reflected. She takes action by making choices with her wallet. Activism 2.0.

This has not gone unnoticed at big commercial brands. Activist campaigns are springing up like mushrooms, for example the award-winning campaign The Talk by Procter & Gamble that criticizes racial bias, ‘Is it ok for guys …’, in which AXE takes a critical look at our idea of masculinity, or LINDA.meiden who encourages girls to be proud of their (naked) breasts with their ‘bareboobedcover’.

How sincere are these brands in their mission to improve the world? Didn’t the same companies try to make us feel insecure, unhealthy and unhappy before? A commercial company earns money by solving a problem. So the bigger the problem, the more money they can earn from the solution.

Coca-Cola used to create a happiness illusion (“Not that satisfied? Drink Coca-Cola – you will be happy and life will suddenly have meaning”). AXE made a whole generation of men insecure (“If these women do not look at you, you’re a loser! Use AXE and hit on every woman you can find – only then you’re a real man”). Dove created a low self-esteem in women by always emphasizing that ‘normal’ women do not meet the beauty ideal (“But if you use Dove products, you will love yourself even so”). This means that firstly, problems were created and fed, subsequently they were ‘resolved’ with the promise of the products, and now the same issues are addressed with activist campaigns. You could argue that these companies have also developed a new conscious, and sure, that is possible. But anyone who claims to be woke, must be consistent.

Libresse launched the campaign #bloodnormal, the first campaign in which their signature blue liquid is replaced by blood (or a red color, at least). A strong and very useful campaign, because Libresse contributes to the normalization of menstruation and blood. But doesn’t Libresse, at the same time, terrify us mentioning the possibility of leaking, visible menstrual products and ‘unwanted smells’? On their website, for example, we can find a campaign on ‘daily fresh panty liners’ that tells you to use a panty liner every day. “That way, you feel fresh and clean on a daily basis.” These are two pretty contradictory messages.

Coca-Cola makes wonderful campaigns to contribute to societal issues, but, with the sale of their products, contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle even more enthusiastically. Shell proudly uploads videos on male / female ratios at the top, but in the meantime remains one of the biggest polluters in the world.
When you look at it like this, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of resistance. The fact that a commercial company by definition exists to make money, makes it rather implausible that the primary goal of their activism would be to improve the world.

And that’s how we get to the dream story of outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. They are distinguished by the authentic activism that is consistently used to complete their mission: to make a positive contribution to climate crisis prevention. In addition to being very critical of their own footprint, they stimulate consumers to consume more sustainably and, above all, less so. This is made easy for the consumer as Patagonia’s products last a long time. Next to this, consumers have access to a free repair service and a recycling program.

But Patagonia is best known for the nature conservation campaigns that go beyond one slogan. Their Black Friday campaign is now iconic: Patagonia donated not the usual 1 percent, but 100 percent of the proceeds from their day sale to small local environmental protection. The results? A record sale of 10 million dollars was realized. With this action, no cash was added to the Patagonia bank account, but they could transfer a huge amount to organizations pursuing the same goal. As a positive side effect, this action generated an enormous amount of PR for Patagonia – plus, they partly sold to a new audience that day.

Why does this brand succeed where the other examples don’t? A very important fact is that Patagonia consciously has no shareholders and can therefore operate autonomously. And, like founder Yvon Chouinard himself says: “We’re not in the clothing business. We’re in the business of saving the planet and we use making clothing as our way of doing it.” It’s hitting the nail right on the head. Companies that are successful users of activist storytelling use commercial revenue as a means to reach the goal. Therefore, that revenue is never the ultimate goal.

The question is whether this is possible for established companies at all, or whether they have to surrender more and more space to companies that have been founded from a mission statement, like Yoni, Dopper, Lush and Tony’s Chocolonely. Successful activist marketing is doable, but requires a sizable transformation. Preaching about change but not changing yourself is something you won’t get away with anymore.

Words by Nadine Ridder / Photo by T Chick Mcclure
This article was published in Dutch at Oneworld.nl and is translated by Imme Visser

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