Why brands are embracing re-activism

by Jenni Hayward
22 Feb 2017
7 min read
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Why brands are embracing re-activism

Despite not having the foggiest idea about American football, I do enjoy Super Bowl season to see what the brands will get up to – this year was no disappointment.  

We are now four years on from the moment when Oreo ‘Dunked in the Dark’ at the 2013 Super Bowl and raised the bar for brands the world over to produce timely reactive content.

Since then it has become common place to see brands reacting in real-time to current affairs and events. However, simple surprise and delight has become passé, now we are seeing a blurring of the lines between reactive content and brand activism – perhaps it is “brand re-activism”.

To resonate with the beliefs and interests of their audiences brands are increasingly taking very vocal political and moral stances. This further establishes their brand personas and their all-important authenticity - a proven and profitable model tested by the likes of Anita Roddick with her alignment of The Body Shop brand to animal rights. This recent wave of brands taking "The Body Shop Approach" can be attributed to the importance millennials and Generation Z as consumers place on brand authenticity. But, before a brand can simply align itself with a cause and start rallying against opponents, it needs to completely and deeply understand what resonates with its audience.    

How brands resonate with their audiences

To understand people you have to listen to them. The same rules apply for brands and their customers - they have to be constantly listening which involves incessant research and data analysis.

Buzzfeed, for example, is a business that is built on data analysis. Started out of a ‘viral lab’ by one of the co-founders of Huffington Post which focused on tracking viral content, it was driven by the desire to find out what makes readers engaged and want to share content. Now the social news and entertainment company’s primary focus is on creating content that resonates with its readers. This involves understanding their humour, their political persuasions and what they think about other topical issues. David Nemes, Director of Brand Strategy for BuzzFeed Australia recently spoke at Campaign Monitor’s ‘The Digital Marketing Landscape’ panel discussion and shed light on how content is successful if it resonates with someone so much that they want to share it. He said: “If they have taken the time to read it, thought about who they want to share it with, written a post to accompany it and then endorsed it – that’s effective content.”

When brands get it right

Continuing with the Buzzfeed example, at the beginning of the year Buzzfeed (alongside many others) felt the wrath of Donald Trump when he described the brand as a “failing pile of garbage” during a press conference. Shortly after Buzzfeed launched its very own ‘Failing Pile of Garbage’ pop-up online store – the store, open for just 12 hours, sold merchandise featuring the President’s quotes.


Completely in tune with its readers’ political stance and humour, the store was well received by consumers and the press alike. Proceeds from the store were donated to the ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’. This timely “re-activism” that rallied and united a group of people appealed to their sense of humour, political persuasions and supported a worthy cause. The campaign ticked all the boxes for making BuzzFeed an authentic brand in the eyes of its target audience.

Another brand re-writing the rulebook for reactive content and brand activism – Airbnb - launched the #WeAccept campaign for Superbowl with this ad spot:

As Ben Hallam, Head of Marketing for Australia New Zealand explained during the panel discussion; the decision to launch the campaign was made very shortly before it aired. When Airbnb’s founder was outraged at hearing from guests on Twitter reporting they had been rejected from hosts’ homes because of their ethnicity he made the decision to take out the ad spot. Last year saw the company readjust is policy to include an obligatory non-discrimination policy for hosts. Following this theme of acceptance the Superbowl ad was simple and effective, utilising activism to further galvanise its strong community and establish the brands’ popular (among its target audience) political stance utilising minimal branding a simple hashtag.

When brands get it wrong

Uber, another pin-up for reactive marketing severely misjudged its decision to continue operating during a taxi strike in January. While taxi drivers affiliated with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance went on strike at JFK airport to protest against President Trump’s refugee ban, Uber announced on Twitter that it had dropped its surcharge and would carry on picking up customers. This move by Uber was badly received and seen as opportunistic and unsupportive, #DeleteUber trended on Twitter as a result. Previously to this Uber had expressed its concerns for many of its drivers who would be affected by the ban.

Once brands involve themselves in political and moral issues they are then held accountable by their customers if their authenticity comes into question. With companies getting onboard with what milenials want and if the controversial Super Bowl ads are anything to go by, this year we are set to see a whole lot more "brand re-activism”.

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