Activism as a Brand | Creating a Values-Driven Reputation

Katie Dunlap January 29, 2018 CSR Trends

The Tables Have Turned on CSR

We live in an unpredictable world. If 2017 taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. We saw some of the largest tax breaks in US history, extreme weather events from coast to coast, and women speak out worldwide for gender equality and equal pay.

The reality is the role of the Corporate Responsibility professional has changed drastically in the past year alone because of defining events. Before 2017, many CSR programs would have continued as planned without altering their strategy to uniquely focus on natural disasters or the political climate. But the table has turned. We have seen consumers call upon corporations to respond to natural and unnatural events alike. Corporations are now rising to that challenge; IBM employees supported Dreamers in 2017 and over 1,000 companies committed to support the Paris Climate Agreement. Generally speaking, consumers were positively surprised about this newfound corporate activism.


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Values Will Drive Activism in 2018

As we head into 2018, we anticipate this surprise turning into expectation. Not only will consumers demand that corporations stand up for what is right, but companies will expect more out of themselves. Corporations will begin to speak out and stand up for causes that align with their brands and values well before consumers demand it.

It’s essential to recognize that this trend is a culmination of the evolution of CSR. CSR has evolved into a business function, one aligned with corporate strategy, efficiencies and most notably values. Brands are expected to have strong values and consumers expect brands to act upon those values. The CSR culture often permeates a company and culture to the point that employees couldn’t imagine their company not taking a stance on certain issues that run counter to their corporate values. As brands continue this process of activism, they will begin to recognize that it is an opportunity for differentiation and a tool that allows employees to engage with purpose on an entirely different level than ever before.


Becoming an Authentic Activist

The key to successful activism is to respond authentically to whatever issue resonates with your company’s culture, operations, or brand. Your authenticity is established through both the level of activism that you respond with as well as the communication used. In terms of levels of activism, the first step would be recognizing an issue and beginning the conversation. Nike has a long history of beginning conversations surrounding women’s equality in sports – like their “Make Yourself” campaign. This step allows brands to engage at a level that they feel comfortable, but also connect brands to consumers and show customers that they are aware of the topic.

Nike promotes Women’s Equality in sports and other aspects of life through their ‘Make Yourself’ campaign.


The next level of activism is taking a stand. CVS Health also has a long history of taking stands. In 2014, CVS took a stand, ceasing to sell tobacco in their stores. They furthered their commitment to changing the company name from CVS Caremark to CVS Health – showing the world their intention. And finally, just this January, CVS announced that they will stop digitally altering photographs used in-store and online to help create a healthier and more realistic environment for young women. Those that are altered will be marked as such.   Taking a stand is certainly a higher risk. There’s a chance that you might alienate potential consumers because of the side chosen, but if you know your audience, they should more strongly identify with your brand than ever before.

CVS Health took a stand in 2014, ceasing to sell tobacco in their stores. Their continued stand against tobacco use is seen through their ‘Be the First’ campaign.


Lastly, in terms of activism, a brand can choose to take a stand AND cause a scene! Earlier this year, UNICEF went to an extreme – parking 27 busses in the streets of New York City, effectively stopping traffic in order to advocate for the 27 million students currently missing school due to war and conflict. The busses also had statistics that were meant to educate the UN General Assembly who was in town that week. When a brand makes a scene, it is an elevation in commitment. Not only has the brand taken a stand, but it has blasted that stand out for the world to see.  

Certainly, this can be risky. When a brand risks upsetting a large part of the population, they can face criticism due to these actions. But if they are acting from a place of authenticity and in accordance with the brand’s values, their target audience will likely be supportive of the message and become more brand-loyal as a result.


If your company has yet to engage with CSR through this lens of activism, and you’re wondering where to start:

  •       Establish your company’s values. No matter what, activism must be authentic and values-driven.
  • Build on the values that run so deeply that key stakeholders, employees, and consumers would expect action from the company.
  •       Measure the level of response your company would be comfortable with and your consumers would view as an authentic response.
  •       Monitor the news for events in that space, whether its environmental, political, or social.
  •       And respond accordingly.

More steps on how to kick off activism at your company and new tips to improve your existing CSR program can be found in our Employee Giving Guide.


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Come back soon for the second post in our series of predictions for CSR trends in 2018.

We’re diving deep into social responsibility and hope you’ll join the conversation when we talk about funding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).