The age of (brand) activists

Coca-Cola: miultilingual Superbowl ad caused uproar as much as praise
Coca-Cola: miultilingual Superbowl ad caused uproar as much as praise

A few months ago, we sat in Atlanta, sipping a Coke Zero with the people who oversee Coca-Cola's global marketing. The team had asked us to help them reflect on ways to accelerate Coke's growth.

In the mid-2000s, they made the bold decision to become a "beacon of happiness" in a world that seriously needed more optimism. It catapulted the business back into growth after a decade of slump. After years of "Always Coca-Cola" ads celebrating its own grandeur, Coke was offering a point of view – people followed. The question now was, how to go further?

Our answer was to shun Coke’s offices, and invite the team to the Atlanta fire station behind which Martin Luther King played as a child, and which would become the first desegregated fire station in Atlanta. We lined the room walls with giant portraits of Harvey Milk, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and offered a simple idea.

Activists, we said, have much to teach marketers.

In particular, they do three things that offer brands a straight path to one of today’s business holy grails, the merger of sustainability and marketing.

  • Activists pick a fight.
  • Activists get famous.
  • Activists live the battle.

Pick a fight

We know Mother Teresa because she elevated her work as a nun into a global fight against poverty. For centuries, poverty was just a fatality; she redefined it as the shame of our world. She made her fight one we could all get concerned about, and engaged us all to go to battle with her.

When Chipotle turned their "better meat" positioning into a fight against over-industrialization, when Dove turned their "nurturing" product story into a fight against the beauty norms that shatter the self-esteem of young woman, they did the same. What was their positioning became our battles.

Get famous

Most of us have forgotten, but the reason we know the face of Nelson Mandela today is a political marketing decision. A long time before their movement started to receive broad international support, the leaders of the ANC realized that taking their battle to the media would do as much for their cause as violence. Mandela was chosen to be the face of that cause – the rest is history. Fame was no ego trip. It was a tool to gain support, a way to get others to join in a fight that was too big for them.

You surely have seen Dove "Sketches" – and it imprints the way you read a Dove product ad. You may have seen Lifebuoy’s "Bring a child to 5 years" – even if you live in a country where Lifebuoy does not roll out their campaign for hand washing and against diarrhoea-related child mortality. But do you know about Pantene’s work in favour of women with cancer, or about L’Oréal’s engagement in favour of women scientists?

This is not because Dove or Lifebuoy execute better. It’s because Dove and Lifebuoy – like Chipotle – have turned their story into a fight that concerns all of us, so it’s easy to get traction. But it’s also because their fight supports their brand story, so making it famous pays.

"Get famous" is the ultimate accelerator, but also the ultimate check of whether your "purpose" is a business-driving strategy – or feel-good window dressing. Chipotle wants to get famous for changing farming habits – and they do (the US government is even consulting them on an antibiotics regulation act). Because selling better meat boosts their business (they grew by 17% in 2013).

Live the battle

Mother Teresa was no office fundraiser. Harvey Milk or Martin Luther King were assassinated. Activists live their battle because it gives them credibility. More important, of course, they live it because they believe in it.

When Chipotle suggested that they might loosen their strict no-antibiotics policy, the internet got wild. They quickly withdrew the idea. Making your fight famous makes you accountable.

Chipotle’s hesitation would have been a disaster – because they actually spend much time working with farmers to effectively improve the quality of what we eat. It’s about living their story. It’s about building its credibility. It’s about ensuring the solidity of their sourcing. CSR and branding have become one.

That’s the final twist of activist marketing. When your fight genuinely does good, as much as it genuinely supports your brand story, then living the battle becomes natural. Purpose and sustainability work cease to be a cost, and instead, becomes an asset that you invest in.

Pantene does not want to get famous for donating hair to women with cancer. It’s not a fight, it’s a CSR platform. So that beautiful program remains a confidential activity, good enough for P&G’s sustainability report.

The Dove campaign, or Chipotle’s work, drive the brands into some of the fastest growing franchises in their categories. They picked a fight that resonates with us. They made it famous. They live it.

That’s when Coke, too, comes back into the story. Their last Superbowl ad, in which "America Is Beautiful" was sung in Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew, caused uproar as much as praise. Risk taking is part of "living the battle". It has been part of Coke’s DNA since Mean Joe Green or Hill Top. Activism is in their genes, and it takes but a little reminder for the company to activate it again.

For others, the three core behaviours of activists offer a simple method. A method to create shared value that’s not in the marketing books, but that has proven its effectiveness.

Christophe Fauconnier and Benoit Beaufils, chief executive and founding partner of Innate Motion, respectively


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