The Most Contagious Debrief: Brand Activism
4 January 2021

View our Most Contagious Debrief here

Most Contagious always promises to be an event full of inspiration, creativity and world-class campaigns, and 2020 didn’t disappoint in any area. Usually a one-day event, this year the festival ran over two days in a new digital platform, with guests able to ask questions, join virtual coffee rooms and feel as immersed as possible in the digital world we all find ourselves in.

We have pulled out the three key themes from the festival, the stand-out sessions that brought the theme to life, and the key takeaways to act on now. The first theme we explore is called: Brand Activism



We heard from the Most Contagious team that 18.5% of marketers think brands should take a stand on political issues. It is proven that consumers prefer to buy from brands that reflect their identity, or desired identity, and repel those that don’t.

However, there can be drastic consequences when it doesn’t go well. When people do agree, not an awful lot changes, but when they disagree, they boycott.

What is crucial, is that any brand activism is authentic. Lack of authenticity will obliterate positive effects.

One brand doing it well is Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, and Paul Kemp-Robertson spoke to Anuradha Chugh, Managing Director of Europe for Ben & Jerry’s, during a remote interview for Most Contagious.

It was clear from the start that the founders of Ben & Jerry’s wanted to make a difference and they pledged to make not only the best possible ice-cream, in the best possible way, but to make a difference by creating a value-led business that they believed could change the world.

Ben & Jerry’s believe that all businesses have the power to spend their money correctly and use their business for good but, of course, there has to be a balance between social activism and selling stuff. 56% of a national representation of Americans believe that brands should not express their opinions, but Ben & Jerry’s say it’s possible!

“There will be many who do not agree with you but aim to connect deeply with fans on the things that matter to them. Aim to love them more than they love you.” Anuradha says.

In fact, Ben & Jerry’s does not refer to “consumers”, instead they call them “fans”, and they are invited along with the company as they fight causes such as immigration policies and defunding the police. It’s always a two-way conversation though with Anuradha saying it’s crucial to listen to your fans; the popular cookie dough flavour was the result of a fan suggestion and Ben & Jerry’s reinstated Baked Alaska after a petition was circulated asking for it to come back.

Ben & Jerry’s wasn’t the only brand to talk about activism. A powerful talk by Will Skeaping from Extinction Rebellion emphasised the importance of climate change as he stated, “you need to overcome our collective denial of the climate crisis”. His advice on what we can do?

  • Work together – speak to competitors
  • Tell the truth to yourself and each other
  • Stop supporting toxic media (stop funding hate & heat)
  • You don’t need to get your house in order before you start – start big start now
  • If your CEO won’t change, change your CEO
  • Be part of the change


Key Takeaways:

  • Stop supporting toxic media.
  • Greenwashing will be called out, sustainable activism must be committed to throughout the business – top, down.
  • Climate and ecological concern must be baked into brands strategies.
  • Tackle activism if it’s authentic to your brand.
  • Don’t be purpose-led for fashion sake.


Is brand activism a good strategy?

There is a growing trend of brands using advertising to advocate divisive social and political issues. However, it isn’t clear what the effect is of these messages on business and consumers. James Swift from Contagious ran us through a variety of academic research to help us understand the risks and rewards of this type of communication.

Firstly, ‘alignment’ of the message with the organisation, as well as consumer values, is hugely important. Research amongst corporate stakeholders, including investors, showed the following interesting outcomes:

a) Investors typically respond negatively when brands engage in corporate socio-political activism (CSA) as it might take attraction away from profit and lead to a stock price drop.

b) However, when CSA is aligned with the investors’ personal or consumer values, it receives support and leads to positive stock and sales growth.

c) Shockingly, there is still an element of inequality when it comes to the impact of CSA on investors – they are more willing to support announcements made by female CEOs.

Secondly, the “authenticity” in a brand activism case might be overrated. Contrary to what many marketers would suppose, brand fit (whether the CSA was considered ‘on brand’ for the company) doesn’t have a significant effect on business. There is an optimal incongruence that could be applied when it comes to the fit between brand and CSA messages.

Thirdly, it’s crucial to keep in mind the “causes” themselves and the influence brand activism has on consumer activism. Brand’s CSA storytelling drives change in people’s minds and hearts. Especially when you communicate to consumers who identify themselves with the brand. Those showed 30% more positive response to brand message.

Finally, as a brand you should remember that your actions and active position can make people think about more salient issues.


Key takeaways:

  • Be active for the causes that your consumers and business care about.
  • Educate business stakeholders on the benefits of being a part of greater good for driving future growth.
  • Be responsible – remember that your active position leads to additional saliency and affects peoples’ lives as well as society.


How can OMD help?

As part of the Fast Start Suite, OMD has established Brand Decision Framework to help align media investments with brand values.

Developed as a direct result of momentum growing around brand activism and rising concerns over misinformation, the Brand Decision Framework is a data-driven approach that helps brands to understand and improve how well their values and commitments match their media activity.

As a result, OMD is evolving the definition of Brand Safety to become Brand Responsibility. It helps brands to make authentic media decisions and combats toxic media.

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