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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Use This Handy Asset Checklist For Branding or Rebranding

The exciting thing about branding is starting a new identity from scratch. In the case of rebranding, it’s giving something old and tired a new lease on life.

What’s not quite as fun are the million-and-one fiddly details that go into the exercise.

Stuff like:

  • Are the design team and me talking about the same thing? Like, is a stacked logo a square logo?
  • Are we covering all the items we truly need? Are we forgetting some that are actually important or, conversely, overdoing it and thereby incurring more expense?
  • Are we all on the same page about approval circuits and building in approval time before launch?

There are many excellent and free branding brief templates to furnish your agency or designer, such as this one from FreshSparks. What’s not so common is a laundry list of all the assets that should be covered by the process. A list sets the foundation for budgeting, timing and organizing. A list grounds you.

So here’s my version that I’ve used several times, from rebranding a 44-country international firm to creating a brand new identity for a digital agency. You can download it as a Word doc as well.

It’s a rare case where all items on this list will be checked off. B2B companies would require more of the digital templates while an e-commerce outfit would need a fuller range of ad formats. Feel free to adjust as necessary.

Logo/brand mark

Tesla logo guidelines

Tesla’s brand guidelines specify the amount of clear space required around the brand mark, as well as where it should appear. For example, the logo should never be placed on a highly patterned background or photograph is

  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Square/stacked
  • Black and white
  • Reverse
  • Favicon

Files should be in as many formats as possible: JPG, PNG, EPS, AI. Include sizes that can be used for larger formats such as outdoor signage and as small as a favicon. The wide range of measurements will test the skill of your designer, as the brand mark has to look good at 16px (a favicon’s size) as it would wrapped around the side of a building.


Beats By Dre typography example

Beats By Dre’s typography embodies its brand: Solid and contemporary, almost masculine.

  • Serif
  • Sans serif

A normal number of fonts to start with would be two, a serif and a sans serif that complement each other. Depending on the brand’s needs, you may also want to commission a script or another distinct font for headlines.

Exercise good sense in choosing fonts. The more fanciful or rare ones require a license which can be cost-prohibitive when purchasing it for multiple users.

In addition, clients who do not have these fonts in their systems will find that any documents you sent them have defaulted to Times New Roman or Arial, not to mention the formatting has all gone off. Remember that Google Fonts are good looking and free!

Color palette

AirBnb color palette

AirBnB’s color palette has 9 shades but 6 shades is a good number to start with.

  • Dominant color 1
  • Dominant color 2
  • Accent color 1
  • Accent color 2
  • Accent color 3
  • Accent color 4

Picking brand colors must be one of the most enjoyable parts of a brand exercise. If you want to play around with colors yourself, have a go using these tools.

Digital templates

Future Prospect Powerpoint template

From cover slide to bullet styles, your PowerPoint presentation should be consistent with your brand. Future Prospect PowerPoint template by Jumsoft.

  • Letterhead
  • PowerPoint or Keynote presentation
  • PowerPoint or Keynote charts – Pie, bar, stacked bar, line, etc.
  • Infographic
  • Icons
  • One-page brochure
  • White paper
  • Invoice
  • Receipt
  • Email signature
  • House ads – Leaderboard, mobile leaderboard, wide skyscraper, large rectangle, medium rectangle, billboard

Digital templates are the workhorses of your brand asset library. In the absence of guidelines, users tend to put their own creative stamp on common documents. Nip these in the bud by providing a full spectrum of branded applications.

Social media assets

Aman Instagram account

Aman’s Instagram account is serene and luxurious, just like the resort company itself.

  • Headers – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn
  • Profile photos
  • Social ads

Normally social media assets are cobbled together internally by the marketing or social media team. If so, it never hurts to run mockups by the brand steward or designer to gauge brand cohesiveness. Future iterations can then be created with pointers in mind.


Jukebox Print cards

Print can be a surprisingly strong way to anchor your brand. Cards by Jukebox Print.

  • Business card
  • Letterhead
  • Letter envelopes
  • Window envelopes
  • Catalog or document envelopes
  • Invoice
  • Receipt
  • Note card or compliments slip
  • Presentation folder
  • Mailing label
  • Brochure

We like to think that print has gone the way of the mastodons, but marketers are discovering that in the mad rush to go digital, emptier mailboxes mean better opportunities to showcase your brand. Did you know that direct mail as a percentage of all mail went up in 2016? And never underestimate the power of the humble receipt to carry brand messaging.

Corporate signage

Slack offices Toronto

Lobby signage doesn’t have to be boring. Slack offices in Toronto, courtesy of Office Snapshots.

  • Lobby signage
  • Directional signage
  • Glass vinyl graphics
  • Exterior signage
  • Event signage

Think of signage as another canvas for your brand. How can you use that space to communicate your brand’s key attributes?

Trade show assets

Ray Ban tradeshow booth

This Ray-Ban tradeshow booth certainly turned heads at an ophthalmology conference in Milan. Photo courtesy of Trive Digest.

  • Retractable banners
  • Trade show booth
  • Table drapery

Apart from their networking benefits, conferences and trade shows are prime opportunities to build brand awareness. You may not have the budget of Ray-Ban in creating a stunning booth, but never underestimate how a well designed retractable banner can stop traffic.

Other applications

New York Post gummy bears giveaway

People are still talking about this bucket of gummy bears that the New York Post gave away during Advertising Week 2014.

  • Branded premiums
  • Branded attire
  • Vehicle wrap
  • Photography
  • Other application 1
  • Other application 2

Want to make this list yours? Download it as a Word document.

How To Pick Colors Like A Pro

When it comes to choosing colors, people are almost always confident about what looks good on them. After all, they’ve had years to experiment with every shade possible, and know for a fact what works and what doesn’t.

The same can’t be said for picking brand colors. Not only do you not have the luxury of time to experiment, it’s very easy to get things horribly wrong. So we tend to leave color decisions to the experts, ie the agency or the graphic designer.

That said, dabbling in the parts of the color picking process is educational and fascinating, especially if you’re a person who has always been intrigued by colors, color psychology and the like. But if colors bore you, then think of the 5 tools below as simplifiers of irksome tasks, like making your Powerpoint deck look more professional.

Adobe Color Wheel

Cost: Free

Adobe Color Wheel

Think of Adobe’s Color Wheel as the digital version of hand mixing paints on a palette. Move or stretch the arm on the circle to find a shade you like. Choose the color rule — analogous, monochromatic, complementary, etc — from the menu on the left. A palette will be produced showing the right shades.

If you click on the Explore tab, you’ll find palettes that other people have produced, which you can upvote or download. If you wish to save your palette (retrievable in the My Themes tab), you’ll have to sign up for an Adobe ID.

Adobe Color palettes

Got a photo with colors that make your heart beat faster? Then you’ll love this neat feature. Click on the camera icon underneath the Sign In link on the right — if you mouse over the camera it’ll say ‘Create from Image’. Upload a photo and the program will extract the colors into a palette based on a color mood you choose. The dropdown menu on the left has five different color moods and one custom which allows you to cherry pick the shades you want from the picture.

In this example, I’ve used a screen grab of a page from Elle Decor France, an interior design magazine that always makes me want to rearrange my furniture and distress my walls. Adobe extracted the greens and chocolates and created a muted palette.

Adobe Color Wheel palette from photograph

Cost: Free

Coolors homepage

Adobe Color Wheel has so many useful features — it’s like the Swiss Army Knife of color planning — but sometimes you just want to mess around in one area without getting distracted by everything else going on.

Like what if you just wanted to play around with the palettes? This is where comes in.

The only thing Coolors does is spit out palettes. Fool-proof, pretty ones. All you have to do is click on the Generate link, which brings you to a row of five color bars. You can start with one hex code, then tap on your space bar for Coolors to come up with suggestions. You can also lock colors to remember the shades you want, or calibrate a shade up or down until you find one to your liking.

The palette below is the one I built for this website. I started with two shades that I really liked: Blush pink and a blackish purple like OPI’s Lincoln Park in the Dark nail polish. Once I put in the two hex codes, Coolors came up with the three other suggestions.

A sample palette from Coolors

It’s important to know that each shade must have a role to play and not just be merely decorative. In this informative blog post by Adobe, an ideal palette is broken down by one neutral color, two ‘pop’ colors and one call-to-action (CTA) color. You’ll find that having structure such as this in creating a palette will head off potential headaches in future, eg H1s or headlines that don’t stand out from body copy.

Hello Color

Cost: Free

Hello Color

Sometimes you don’t need an entire palette — all you need is a contrasting color that doesn’t look like dreck. You want to achieve what Pablo Picasso once mused aloud in wonder: ‘Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing?’

Hello Color is as minimal as it gets. Just type in the hex code of your preferred color in the URL’s c parameter (see the visual below on where to find it) and it’ll spit out a fine matching color that you’d never have thought of, as well as other shades. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

How customize Hello Color

Brand Colors

Cost: Free

Brand Colors homepage

Now that you’ve had a go at creating palettes and seen some not-too-shabby results, you may be interested in replicating the palettes of specific brands. Perhaps you’ve seen the below infographic that spurred the idea, or read up on color theory and want to apply these insights to your own brand. Hey if red works for Virgin and Tesla …

Color Emotion Guide by The Logo Company

Brand Colors is a library of colors for 600+ brands, with an even spread across US and international names. All the hex codes are spelt out and you can download them for reference. The logos are sourced from official documentation such as identity/brand guidelines of press kits. If you are the steward of your company brand and think it ought to be featured, you can certainly suggest it to the site’s owner, Galen Gidman.

Brand Colors is not perfect — Boise State University is on the list while Apple isn’t — but it’s a great place to start researching other brands’ palettes and noting how they’re used.

Color Name

Cost: $.99

How Color Name works

Let’s say you’re out and about and saw a very fetching scene, the colors of which are so ravishing you’re inspired to create a palette.

You can take a photo with your iPhone and upload the photo to Adobe Color Wheel. Or you could download the Color Name app for 99 cents and start on your palette right there and then.

What’s neat about Color Name is that it identifies colors by name — what’s scarlet for you could be fuchsia for me — thus minimizing confusion. Just tap your finger on any part of the photograph and the app will provide the RGB specs and its official name for the color you picked. Tap on the color’s name at the top and it will bring you to a screen with RGB, CMYK, HSB and hex codes for the color plus three similar Pantone shades to consider.

All these apps demystify what we’ve always thought of as a skill belonging only to the artistically gifted. Choosing colors that look great is actually much more a science that it is an art.

‘Not only can color, which is under fixed laws, be taught like music, but it is easier to learn than drawing, whose elaborate principles cannot be taught,’ said French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix, who lived in the 1800s. He may not have foreseen the wondrous 21st century tools that can do just that, but would’ve certainly appreciated the vistas they have opened for the non-artists among us.

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