Authenticity, the key to brand activism

In light of the upcoming ASA legislation against harmful gender stereotypes, Brand Experience Content Strategist Jenny Elwin, explores how brands can take an authentic activist stance when it comes to issues of gender.

Society is increasingly polarised between liberal and conservative attitudes, with a constant ricochet between celebration and criticism when it comes to brand activism. 86 per cent of US customers believe companies should take a stand on social issues, yet for every brand campaign with a strong activist message there is a loud backlash on social media.

A strong point of view on controversial topics is always going to be divisive, so a genuine understanding of the customer is paramount. As highlighted by the unchanged sales figures following Gillete’s controversial ‘The Best Men Can Be’ advert, a twitter furore is irrelevant if brand messaging rings true with the target customer.

Nevertheless, while social media criticism may not impinge on direct sales, taking an activist stance will open up a brand to deeper scrutiny. People will feel permission to dig deeper into the product portfolio and scrutinise the full remit of how a brand behaves. If inconsistencies are revealed, this will create disillusionment in a brand and what it stands for. In Gillette’s case this was the contradiction of preaching gender equality in adverts for men’s razors, while applying ‘pink tax’ to female razors in reality.

Household blog about authentic brand activism, featuring Nike's Dream Crazier advert with Serena Williams

In contrast, Nike’s ‘Dream Crazier’ advert goes beyond the tired marketing approach of product pinkification to engage women with a true message of equal opportunities. The advert features the exceptional sporting achievements of tennis star Serena Williams, gymnast Simone Biles, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and more. It calls out the double standards that women are subjected to, both on the sports field and in the workplace, while highlighting the centuries old struggle of women being written off as ‘emotional’ and ‘crazy’.

While the ad alone is emotive and inspirational, its success lies beyond this. Nike supports poignant brand messaging with product innovations that truly equip customers to not only ‘Dream Crazier’, but to live out this dream. From designing Hijabs for Muslim athletes, to developing the Motion Adapt Bra, Nike continues to develop products that empower female athletes to succeed.

From June this year, advertisers will be banned from presenting gender stereotypes that “are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence” and brand authenticity will come under increased scrutiny as a result. As more brands make gender equality messaging part of their marketing practices and physical brand activations, customers will increasingly scrutinise brands’ internal and external practices to check if they are genuinely on-brand. 

Household blog about authentic brand activism, featuring Nike's Dream Crazier advert with Serena Williams

Customers are not blind to the ultimate goal of brands – selling products. But brands should be wary of treating feminism as a trend to monetise from and focus on building a genuine connection with customers instead. Female empowerment needs to go beyond headlines and tokenistic gestures. It needs to be validated by actions that are in-line with brand purpose and values and that genuinely resonate with the customer.

Brands that partner with their customers in meaningful and relevant ways will not only earn the right to take a stance that is both inspirational and activist minded, but they will build an authentic brand in the process.


Images courtesy of Nike 


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