photo courtesy Influencer @vintagedolls on IG

Influencer Marketing and Activism

Throughout history, concerned citizens have used existing platforms to protest injustice and advance their causes. But global platforms like Twitter and Instagram have made it much easier for many more people to learn about what’s going on in the world and to express their opinions about it.  

And as social media continues to open up communication channels between ordinary people and the brands they do business with, informed consumers are putting pressure on brands to use their power and financial clout to take a stand on the social issues they support.

An overwhelming majority of consumers now say that they “must be able to trust the brand to do what is right” if they’re going to consider making a purchase.[1] And nearly 80% of Millennials and Gen Z feel that brands should take a stand on social issues.[2]

So, what is the right way for brands to communicate their support for social causes? And how can influencer activism be incorporated into the strategy?


Which Communication Strategies Should Brands Use to Support Social Causes? 

Brands must tread carefully when they take a vocal stance in support or in opposition to social causes such as popular topics like climate change, environmental activism, pop culture, and social change. They have to accept that there are risks in backing issues in a society that’s become so polarized.  This is similar to the concepts of judicial activism when considering the broader implications of an action or decision.

But the greater risk is that a brand jumps in to support an issue merely for the PR value or that it gets involved as a defensive move. Here are some strategies for doing activism the correct way.

Support Issues That Align with Your Core Values

Plan carefully before you decide to slap an activism label on your brand. Consumers are skilled at sniffing out opportunism. If they think your brand is speaking up simply because it’s trendy or in response to a bad public relations event, they’ll waste no time calling you out on social media.

Study the issues that you believe align with your brand’s mission, so when you do communicate your position, it will flow naturally from your set of core values. Even when a brand engages in activism or takes more direct action, customers value brands that are authentic, and if it appears that you’re only trying to take advantage of a trend or do damage control, your efforts will backfire.

Be Certain That Your Message Doesn’t Come Across as Tone-Deaf

Can anyone forget the disastrous ad campaign that featured Kendall Jenner using a can of Pepsi to help unify protesters and police?[3] Probably not anytime soon.  

Another example of a campaign with good intentions that failed miserably was Burger King’s “Real Meals” promotion.[4] In what appeared to be a less-than-subtle dig at its competitor, McDonald’s, Burger King promoted items like, Blue Meal, Salty Meal, Pissed Meal, and DGAF Meal. Apparently, the campaign was supposed to encourage people to “feel their way” – a reference, no doubt, to its iconic “Have it Your Way” slogan.  Often, while initially well-intentioned, these examples do not represent or represent the opinion of the target audience. 

What’s so surprising is that Burger King had teamed up with a national organization to promote Mental Health Awareness month. The brand took a serious issue and essentially made light of it in their ads.

Find Ways to Make Your Brand Stand Out

Probably the best way to make your brand’s activism message sound authentic and meaningful is to use social listening and sentiment analysis tools. When you can discover what people are saying about your brand (and your competitors’ brands) and interpret the meaning behind their comments, it will be easier to develop campaigns that resonate with your target audience.  This is far more effective than using standard campaigns which do nothing but appear to take pages out of the activists handbook or become overtly political or social while not intending to be so.

When brands demonstrate that they understand their customers, they’ll see more engagement and improved brand affinity. Increased engagement may also lead to more sharing, giving brands a way to reach new customers. 

Use Influencers to Facilitate Even More Engagement and Message Authenticity

More than 60% of consumers trust influencer messages more than brand messages.[5] That’s because influencers are seen as relatable and persuasive when pitching products. And it’s the influencers with lower follower counts that typically get more engagement and are more effective in niche markets.[6] But will micro- and nano-influencers be able to tackle social issues that affect a wider range of people? They will if they use their social media accounts to consistently and authentically promote a single cause.

When it comes to influencer activism as one of the forms of activism, brands should focus less on follower count and more on the depth of the influencer’s knowledge of and participation in the issue they’re trying to advance. Do your homework and research influencers’ activity with organizations related to the topic they’re promoting. Just keep in mind that influencers with a larger following are going to be more costly.

Brand Activism + Influencer Activism is a Powerful Combination

Brands can make a difference and earn consumer support at the same time and even help to effect social change by being part of pop culture. Be sure to choose an issue that aligns with your brand’s values. Then, work closely with properly vetted influencers who can help to educate you about the cause and lend authenticity to your advocacy.