Marketer | Writer | Global Citizen

Going For Woke: How Brand Activism is the New Path to Profit

‘These creatives are trying to make their toilet paper save the world.’
So opined fellow creative Rob Baiocco of BAM Connection, who was wryly commenting in a Guardian article about marketers’ new pursuit of social justice cred.
Is endowing the most banal of products with meaning as ludicrous as one would think? In October 2017, because the subject intrigued me as a marketer, I conducted my own research using SurveyMonkey.
The findings showed that, increasingly, consumers choose brands that are aligned with their values and shed those they perceive as a mismatch.
With Malaysian market research firm Green Zebras  guiding me on questionnaire design and extracting insights, I polled 1,006 consumers across America about the social causes they believe in, how these affect their purchase decisions, and the companies they identified as supportive of causes closest to their heart.   
The following are highlights of the study, starting with the most striking conclusion.

Four out of 10 consumers have switched brands because of a perceived values mismatch

Companies are beginning to realize, if they haven’t yet, that there is now a moral dimension to brand choice.
What used to be a disapproved practice — taking sides – is increasingly good business. And, in the case of many of the companies featured in my survey, taking sides can be downright profitable. Research Live wrote last year that purpose-driven brands in Havas’ Meaningful Brands index outperformed the stock market by 206% over a 10-year period and achieved 137% greater return on key performance indicators.
More than ever, consumers are extremely aware of the power of the purse and do not hesitate in wielding it. Perhaps the most extraordinary single finding from my survey was that 43% of respondents have switched brands, companies or service providers ‘because they support movements or causes that conflict with my own.’
To businesses just wanting to operate and turn a profit, all this sounds a bit extreme, perhaps even militant. However the groundwork for such an attitude shift was being laid as far back as the 70s.

How brand choice started to mirror personal values

The roots of conscious capitalism are often traced to Anita Rodick, founder of The Body Shop in 1976. The Body Shop was arguably the first brand to bake social activism into its corporate DNA, integrating commercial activity with what were then fringe movements such as ending animal testing. Other brands that followed The Body Shop’s footsteps in the 1980s included Benetton, Patagonia and Esprit.
Benetton ad 1990

This Benetton ad from 1990 was considered very provocative then.

Social forecaster Patricia Aburdene predicted the rise of conscious capitalism in her book Mega Trends 2010, propelled in part by the collapse of Enron, serious labor and environmental violations such as those perpetrated by Chiquita Brands, and the growth of socially responsible investing.
Conscious capitalism grew in step with the increasingly popular LOHAS — lifestyles of health and sustainability — which spawned interest in organic foods, alternative medicine and yoga. Companies like Starbucks, Whole Foods and Zappos represented a new type of business, one that was invested in the greater good, not just the pursuit of profit.
The explosion of social media has made the exchange of news and information possible in a nanosecond, enabling grassroots movements to coalesce at an unheard of speed in reaction to events that would never have emerged on the world stage before. Equipped with a wider world view, energized by having a voice and bolstered by their numbers online, individuals are now hyper-aware of the role they play in addressing issues and effecting change.  

Ethical consumption is here to stay

‘The bulk of the world’s top brands either cater to or employ a diverse, urban, millennial audience that is deeply in-tune to the social and ethical issues of our day,’ said Alex Lirtsman in an analysis of brand activism for Interbrand. ‘Those audiences don’t just want their employers and favorite brands to reflect their values, they expect them to.’ [italics mine]
Idealism also eclipses pragmatism. Twenty-eight per cent of the people I surveyed said they would never buy a brand that supports causes they disagree with ‘even if it inconveniences me’. Only 18%, in comparison, said they would not stop using a value-inconsistent brand if it cost less, offered more value, had the features they needed or had no comparable alternative.
And this exercise in ethical consumption is not done alone. Twenty-three per cent of respondents said family and/or friends have influenced them in buying brands ‘that speak to our shared values’. This vetting of worthy brands is often done online, making brand messaging critical during key stages of the customer journey. 
To companies that still think social media is frivolous: Be warned that it’s on social media where the first — and often unshakeable — impressions are made.
Brand activism survey 2018

More women than men are committed to leveraging their purchase power

In breaking down the data by gender, it was apparent that women, more than men, were more exacting in ensuring that their brand choices match their values — something brands should note.
Although recent studies show that men now shop for groceries as often as women, the latter are still more likely to be the household’s primary shopper, making messaging about corporate social responsibility still a relevant, necessary element in marketing.
Women are also more inclined to limit their circles to people with the same belief systems. A quarter of female respondents said it was difficult for them to ‘hang out or socialize with people who do not share my beliefs/values’, compared to 19% of male respondents.
This would not be especially significant except that 27% of women, in contrast to 18% of men, say that their choices of brands have been influenced by their family and/or friends.
Women already outnumber men on social media, are more likely to interact with brands online and are bigger consumers of news on social media platforms. Brands need to look beyond engagement metrics on female-dominated social media platforms and think: How do we use our mission and story to convert customers to advocates? How do we encourage them to introduce us to their friends and family?
Finally, the most interesting gender difference is this: For cost or convenience reasons, 23% of men will not stop using brands even if they clashed with their values. Only 14% of women agreed with this statement.
Brand activism: Men vs women

Climate change is the number one social issue for American consumers

I created a list of social issues that hit the headlines in 2017 and asked respondents to check off those they strongly identify with. In general, the top social issues across age, gender, household income, educational attainment and employment status is climate change. The second is ending racism and the third, alleviating poverty.
Social causes consumers want their brands to support infographic 2018

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The brands getting it right

The survey asked respondents to spontaneously mention three brands that they thought supported social issues that were meaningful to them. These were the top 20 brands that came to mind, unprompted, ranked by the volume of mentions.
  1. Starbucks
  2. Apple
  3. Target
  4. Chick-fil-A
  5. Whole Foods
  6. Amazon
  7. Ben & Jerry’s
  8. Toms
  9. Walmart
  10. Nike
  11. Hobby Lobby
  12. Google
  13. Microsoft
  14. Coca-Cola
  15. Dove
  16. Costco
  17. Patagonia
  18. Credo
  19. Facebook
  20. Tesla
Steve Murphy, the co-founder of Malaysian market research agency Green Zebras, helped me in analyzing the findings. He observed, ‘Although there are millions of brands out there, we can see that some brands have clearly stepped up to the plate in consumers’ minds.’
If there ever was a textbook example, Target would be it. The retailer’s corporate social responsibility thrust is a cornerstone of its brand. ‘Target is in an impressive spot,’ added Murphy. ‘It’s the number one spontaneous mention for female respondents, and also appears to be a top-of-mind choice for the younger segment overall (44 or below).’


But how does one get to be a Target? The one thing companies shouldn’t do is rush out and adopt a cause for instant social justice cred. Consumers can sniff inauthenticity miles away and, as mentioned earlier, are not hesitant to pour scorn on perceived greenwashing.
Instead, businesses should do some soul-searching and determine whether social activism is the right path for them or not. Some questions to kick off an internal conversation:
  1. Is there a cause or movement that makes sense to be part of our corporate DNA? This would presuppose strong corporate branding.
  2. How, specifically, will we help? There is a wide range of activities involved in supporting social causes, from donating to organizing.
  3. What do we want to achieve by our support? Absolute candor is required, e.g. ‘to become more relevant to younger audiences and convert them to customers’. Which leads to the next question:
  4. How will success be measured? Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and ROI.
  5. Do we have the infrastructure and resources for this? Assess your current situation, outline the ideal setup and understand what is required to close the gap.
  6. How much are we willing to invest in it? Funding aside, list the non-monetary elements required that still represent value, such as executive time and internal resources.
  7. Will it be a company-wide mandate or optional for employees?
  8. What are the risks of planting our flag? These could be anything from losing a customer segment to underestimating the investment involved. As in all things business, anticipating and preparing is better than reacting.
There’s no better time than now to embark on a discussion. Perhaps Mark Larson, the global head of KPMG’s consumer markets and retail industry practice, summed it up best in a CMO article about corporate social responsibility:
‘In a world where trust in big businesses has been eroded and social media can amplify reputational risk, it is vital that brands show they stand for more than making money.’

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The Anatomy Of A Successful Crowdfunding Campaign

With crowdfunding transaction values expected to hit $1.04 billion in 2018, it’s tempting to think that with a bit of elbow grease and a lot of social buzz that any entrepreneur could have a slice of that enormous pie.

There are reams of information on how to create a successful crowdfunding campaign, how to pick the best crowdfunding platform and the most successful crowdfunding projects. They’re packed with detail and offer so much great advice that you don’t need another blog post regurgitating what was said.

You may, however, want to take a closer look at a current (2018) case study of a campaign that worked. This campaign is Wado, a line of sustainable sneakers created by a trio of Barcelona-based entrepreneurs. The Kickstarter campaign goal in March was to raise 11,000 euros or about $13,500. Instead the campaign raised 363,761 euros or nearly $447,000.

A lot of what the Wado team did will reiterate the points raised in this excellent piece by seasoned crowdfunder Khierstyn Ross. In fact if there is only one article about crowdfunding that you are willing to read, by all means choose hers because a) it’s grounded in experience and b) it doesn’t sugar coat.

I discovered the the Wado campaign not on Kickstarter, which I seldom visit, but through the daily email sent by Inside Hook. First lesson of successful crowdfunders:

The imagery was flawless

‘Pictures are worth a billion pixels.’ That’s the money quote from a Thrillist story about how Netflix’s new algorithm was serving up images based on viewer behavior and preferences. The entertainment behemoth’s research showed that artwork made up 82% of a viewer’s focus when scrolling through choices to watch.

The same principle applies to crowdfunding platforms where there are lots of distractions. Quality visuals elevate campaigns from the noise. Analyses of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns show that they all had compelling imagery in common. A UK study of Kickstarter campaigns found that a project with a video was 85% more likely to be funded.

Wado had shot after shot of the shoes, all beautifully taken, with or without models. It also had photographs of the founders, the factory, the shoes in production. There was video of the founders and video of the shoes. In short, there was no shortage of eye candy to tempt and convince. On the Inside Hook email, Wado’s imagery made me click through to their Kickstarter campaign.

They used other media, not just social

The Wado team had obviously diversified its marketing portfolio to spread the word through sites like Inside Hook which has a significant audience. It’s interesting to note that the media coverage spanned the globe, with articles in French, German and Dutch.

In her piece, Ross said having a social media strategy was fine, just don’t rely on it completely. ‘While having thousands of Twitter followers and likes on your Facebook page is great for social proof, it will not move the needle the way you need it to.’

She champions a good, not purchased, email list in getting much-needed traction during the crucial first few days of a crowdfunding campaign. It’s likely Wado’s email list played a part in achieving the next point:

The campaign reached 92% of its goal in less than 24 hours

Ross says it’s essential that a campaign raises 30-40% of its funding goal in the first three days for it to be picked up by Kickstarter or Indiegogo’s ‘popularity algorithm’. A hot campaign will be picked up and featured prominently on the site, where it will be enthusiastically funded by more people. Success breeds success.

On Kickstarter, Wado’s campaign was featured on ‘Projects We Love’, a popular section of the crowdfunding site, halfway through the campaign. On Indiegogo, where Wado was 3,307% funded on March 31st, the campaign lives on in Indiegogo’s InDemand while also being featured on the first page of the Fashion & Wearables category.

Wado on Indiegogo

There was an element of gamification

To entice donors to spread the word and maybe even purchase another pair, the team created stretch goals during the campaign:

  • If funding reached 25,000 euros (a little over $30,000), one more color choice would be added, with followers empowered to pick from three variants. The goal was reached in three days and the winning color, beige, was unlocked.
  • If funding reached 250,000 euros (approximately $307,000 and change), the team would throw in a cotton drawstring shoe bag for every pair. As the campaign surpassed this target, the shoe bag is now a certainty.

All throughout, the team posted updates on Kickstarter in addition to email updates, keeping the shoes very top-of-mind for funders and increasing the likelihood of them amplifying the campaign. This note, for example, was meant to clarify shoe sizes but a link was included for recipients to share on Facebook. Who hasn’t gone onto social media to crow about his or her latest find?

Wado sneaker email for funders

The timing was impeccable

Timing is critical in a campaign’s success — you want to catch your funders when they’re most in the mood to open their wallets. And the Wado team, whether by design or accident, couldn’t have chosen a better time to launch a retro-inspired sneaker.

Sneaker sales have been soaring, thanks to the athleisure trend. According to the NPD Group in 2017, lifestyle running shoes grew more than 40 per cent in the third quarter alone. All major, mid-market and mass fashion brands have launched their own versions of sneakers. The best proof yet that sneakers are hot? Gucci’s current cult footwear is not its signature loafers but its Stan Smith-like Ace sneaker.

Wado is also tapping into the current zeitgeist for retro footwear. There’s been a general wave of nostalgia for the 70s and 80s which hasn’t crested yet. You can see it in the popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things, the re-emergence of bowl haircuts and scrunchies, and a renewed fervor for vinyl and mixed tapes.

Sustainability was a key message

Mindless consumption brings on the guilt, but conscious capitalism makes shoppers feel virtuous. In all of Wado’s material, sustainability was as important a message as the retro inspiration:

  • Every purchase of a pair means two trees planted in northeastern India
  • Wado sneakers are constructed from chromium-free leather
  • Manufacturing is done in Portugal; no sweatshop labor in Asia

The Wado team even adopted a hashtag, #playgreen.

The takeaway from all this? It may not seem obvious but there had been months of preparation behind the scenes before Wado surfaced on Kickstarter, something to remember if you are ever in the mind to crowdfund your next big idea.

Easy Peasy Apple Galette

Desserts that are a doddle to make, fail-safe delicious and visually stunning are thin on the ground. Adding another requirement -- easy to assemble during or after a meal and serve to impressed guests -- where do you find such a unicorn? 

People, this is that dessert.

Adapted from a pretty old Marie Claire article written by New York magazine food editor Gillian Duffy, this apple galette ticks all the boxes. A galette is a free form tart, and this version uses pre-made puff pastry for ease.

Easy Peasy Apple Galette

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, like Pepperidge Farm's (save the other sheet for next time)

1-2 apples, cored and thinly sliced

1-2 tablespoons melted butter

2 tablespoons vanilla sugar or brown sugar

Optional: Eggwash (make from 1 tablespoon water + 1 beaten egg), confectioners' sugar

Thaw unfolded puff pastry sheet on a baking sheet at room temperature. It will take at least 40 minutes for it to be pliable enough to unfold without breaking off any edges.

Once it's unfolded, repair any deep creases at the fold seams by gently massaging the dough to patch. Then cut a rough circle; it doesn't have to be perfect. Discard dough corners or scraps.

Eyeball a border of about 1/2 inch from the border of the circle. Starting from the inner edge of the border, arrange the apple slices in a spiral, ending in the middle.

Next, fold up the tart's border over the apples to make a wall. Pleat the pastry to flatten. Again, it needn't be pretty. The roughness is what gives the galette its charm.

Brush the apple slices with the melted butter and sprinkle with vanilla sugar or brown sugar. If using eggwash, brush the border. I find it makes the puff pastry glossier once done.

Slide the baking sheet into a 500 degree F oven. It should take about 11 minutes or so. By then you and your guests will be smelling the unmistakable, mouth-watering apple-on-pastry fragrance wafting from your kitchen.

Remove the galette from the oven and sprinkle all over with confectioners' sugar, if using. 


This galette ideally should serve four persons, but I've seen it devoured by two very hungry people. With their hands.

If you plan to channel your inner Nigella, a few minutes before the meal ends or even after, when there's a lull in the conversation, start prepping the galette. You can pre-slice the apple(s) and toss with a few drops of lemon juice so the slices won't brown.

This is fabulous with vanilla ice cream.

Use pears in place as an alternative.