Alicia Kan | SEO-driven content | Marketing

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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As the Pandemic Lingers, Brands Master the New Normal

COVID-19 has upended consumer behavior like nothing else. Lockdowns have created homebodies who cut back on discretionary spending, embarked on a gardening binge, and remodeled and renovated to the point that American saw mills ran out of lumber.

The challenge now for brands is to understand their role in the new normal. Several, like the below, are finding novel ways to position their offerings and stay relevant during turbulent times.

Getty Museum Challenge: Bringing the Museum Experience Home

Getty Museum Challenge Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid’s Garden by John William Waterhouse

One of the most popular Getty Museum Challenge entries on Reddit was u/moorelei's take on Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid's Garden by John William Waterhouse

Like retail, restaurants and airlines, museums lost consumer patronage during COVID-19. The American Alliance on Museums estimates that US museums are losing $33 million a day due to closures. Can these institutions stay relevant at a time when everyone is hunkered down at home?

The Getty Museum proved that they can. In late March, it issued a challenge on social media to recreate famous works in their collection using household items. Thousands of entries later, the Getty Museum Challenge has kept boredom at bay, given home schooling-stressed families a creative diversion and, most importantly, made art accessible to a wider swathe of people.

Successes like this campaign have inspired other museums to experiment with live streamed tours, virtual visits, Zoom lectures, and other digital ways to experience their collections. For organizations that have traditionally relied on foot traffic in the past, how can you bring the experience to users’ homes? What assets can you leverage to draw in users?

You can find more entries to the Getty Museum Challenge on Instagram with the hashtag #betweenartandquarantine.

OffLimits Cereal: Rejuvenating a Tired Category

OffLimits cereals

OffLimits cereals for morning larks and night owls

With dining out a distant memory, how did people’s eating habits change during COVID? According to food manufacturers, households stockpiled flour, canned soup and cereal. The last has undergone a dramatic turnaround during COVID. After years of sales declines, the once moribund cereal sector is having a renaissance as homebound consumers appreciate its convenience and price.

It may have taken a pandemic for cereal to make a comeback but for new brand OffLimits, cereal is nostalgic yet ripe for reinvention. The cocoa-and-Intelligentsia-coffee flavored Dash is meant as a morning booster while vanilla-and-pandan Boost is designed to help wind down the day. In an old school throwback, all purchases are eligible for tickets that can be redeemed for toys. The toy range at the moment comprises key chains, custom Sharpies, and spray paint.

When Vogue asked OffLimits founder Emily Miller why she focused her efforts on a new kind of cereal, she answered, ‘Why couldn’t there be something fun like Tony the Tiger mixed with the healthy ingredients Mom would approve of?’ As more homebound consumers rediscover packaged goods, brands that innovate in this space will be the new grocery winners.

Stella Artois: Giving Back to the Sector it Knows Best

First written up in Marketing Dive, beer brand Stella Artois created a social media campaign that is true to its roots and hones in on a sector it knows best: bars and restaurants.

Anchored by messaging that said ‘there is always an after’ to a crisis, the campaign encouraged consumers to purchase vouchers for use at these small businesses. Stella Artois will match the value of the vouchers once they are used after the health crisis is over. According to Marketing Dive, the beer brand raised over $2.5 million across 10 countries where the campaign ran.

What made Stella Artois’ campaign so different from the generic COVID commercials that were widely panned in this video supercut was positive, measurable impact on stakeholders with which it had deep relationships. McKinsey, back in 2009, wrote a seminal piece on how companies should choose corporate social responsibility initiatives, and of the principles it outlined in that article, smart partnering holds true in this COVID case study. Small bars and restaurants benefited from the beer brand’s size, presence, and knowledge of their space while the benefit to Stella Artois was enhanced corporate reputation.

KEPT: Luxury in the Most Unexpected Places

KEPT Cleaning Supplies

KEPT's cleaning tools are meant to be displayed

As consumer categories waxed and waned during the crisis, one has exploded beyond expectations: home cleaning products. Packaged goods giants Reckitt Benckiser, Unilever and Procter & Gamble have said that they expect consumers’ heightened cleaning habits to continue beyond the pandemic.

Which makes brands like KEPT not only prescient, but poised for success. KEPT gives the lowly dustpan, broom and feather duster the designer touch, making them unexpected luxury items. The utility set pictured above, consisting of an inky black broom, feather duster, dust pan, brush and pegboard, costs $458. And it’s out of stock.

‘I wanted this collection to hit the sweet spot of products that are thoughtfully designed and made — buy once, buy well,’ said Kara Mann, interior designer and the brand founder, to Silicon Valley magazine. ‘It’s a broom that you don’t have to hide away; you can hang it on a pegboard and use it because it feels good in your hand and sweeps beautifully.’

With consumers stuck at home, the whole construct of luxury has changed. Investing in a $2,000 designer bag makes no sense when there’s no opportunity to show it off; instead, the new must-have is a Peloton bike. Luxury brands might want to take a leaf from KEPT’s notebook and understand how it can still inject that little bit of luxe in a home setting.

One brand that has understood this, years before COVID, is Armani. Its dark chocolate and hazelnut spread is the designer version of Nutella.

The Little Black Dress And 9 Other Innovations Credited To Coco Chanel

August 19 marks the 135th birthday of Coco Chanel, the milliner-turned-fashion designer whose style ethos remains uncannily modern year after year.

Everyone is familiar with Chanel, the brand, but not everyone knows that the house’s founder was behind some of the 20th century’s most iconic classics. Below are just 10 of these innovations credited to Coco Chanel.

1. Dropwaist dresses

Marion Morehouse

A Chanel-clad Marion Morehouse, the third wife of poet e.e. cummings, photographed by Edward Steichen in 1926. She was said to be the first true supermodel.

At the turn of the 20th century, women’s fashion was both ornate and uncomfortable. Hats were enormous, embellished with flowers, feathers and gauze. A stylish silhouette meant corsets maids had to lace one into, whaleboned bodices and triple-strapped pointed shoes that could only be fastened with a button hook. Walking was a struggle with yards of fabric getting entangled in legs.

In 1916, Chanel debuted a new silhouette that was positively rebellious. Her dresses were shorter, revealing a woman’s ankles, and had no waists. Instead, there was a scarf or belt that was loosely tied at the hips, making corsets obsolete and allowing women to breathe free.

Chanel reportedly said ‘I gave women’s bodies their freedom back’, but ironically the dropwaist dress gave rise to a different, equally tyrannical species of shapewear. Breast-binding bras came into vogue as women tried to achieve the sleek, lithe profile necessary to carry off the ‘charming chemise’, as American fashion editors called it.

2. Bobbed hair

Chanel's bobbed hair through the years

Chanel sported a bob pretty much throughout her life. Photos from Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux and A Matter of Style by Valeria Manferto de Fabianis.

In 1917, Chanel adopted the polarizing haircut that took the female world by storm when Irene Castle had her hair shorn. Bobbed hair was a radical departure from the long tresses of yore. It was frowned upon by the older generation, who assumed that women with bobbed hair were ‘fast’ and disreputable. Flappers took to it as they took to the drop waist dress, driving and smoking.

Chanel stuck to her signature hair style throughout her life, accenting it with head gear like cloche hats, berets and ribbons. A bob was liberating, modern and a very visual break from the past, themes that were consistently reflected in Chanel’s fashions.

3. Trousers for women

Coco Chanel 1929

Coco Chanel and her friend, opera singer Marthe Davelli in trousers, circa 1929. Photo from Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

If bobs were polarizing, women wearing pants was an outrage in Chanel’s younger years.

As early as 1912, Chanel was wearing jodhpurs that she had borrowed from a groom and copied by a tailor. At that time, women who rode horses did so wearing their long hair fully coiffed under a top hat, clad in society-approved apron skirts that concealed breeches. They also rode side saddle, as befitted ladies of good breeding.

Chanel had started wearing sailor’s pants in Deauville, where she opened a boutique in 1913, as a modest alternative to the cumbersome swimwear of the Edwardian era. At the cusp of the 1930s, Chanel introduced trousers for women that were loose and elegant, yachting pants as they were soon to be known.

4. The little black dress

Chanel little black dresses

The little black dress that started it all in 1926 and Chanel working on its reincarnation in the 1950s. Left photo via Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux and right photo from A Matter of Style by Valeria Manferto de Fabianis.

Arguably the most famous little black dress would be Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy sheath in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The distinction of creating the little black dress in the first place though, belongs to Coco Chanel.

The illustrated black dress on the left was featured in Vogue’s American edition in 1926. The magazine predicted that this sheath of crepe de chine would become a uniform for women, a concept that was radical in itself. Vogue argued that one would not hesitate to buy a car that looked similar to other cars on the road if it was known for its quality. ‘Here is a Ford named Chanel,’ Vogue said.

The reception to the little black dress was as divisive as drop waist dresses, bobbed hair and pants on women. Male journalists bemoaned the loss of bosoms, waists and bums. Two more Chanel LBDs were featured in French Vogue in 1927, both dropwaist, knee-length and sleeveless, spurring one of the biggest names in fashion then, Paul Poiret, to utter his most famous lines:

‘What has Chanel invented? Poverty de luxe. Formerly women were architectural, like the prows of ships, and very beautiful. Now they resemble little undernourished telegraph clerks.’

5. Costume jewelry

Verdura cuffs for Chanel

Original Verdura Maltese cross cuffs from 1930 created for Chanel. Photo from Vintage Jewelry Design by Caroline Cox.

With the advent of the little black dress, a new canvas was born that begged for adornment. Wearing full-on jewels though was a hallmark of the past; Chanel’s brilliant idea was to use glass instead of real gems. One of the quotes attributed to her on the subject was ‘I love fakes because I find such jewelry provocative, and I find it disgraceful to walk around with millions around your neck just because you’re rich.’

Chanel’s boutiques started selling fake jewels in 1921, but really came into their own when the designer collaborated with Maison Gripoix, a firm known for its glass jewelry. The poured glass gems were striking, designed to evoke different stylistic periods from Byzantine to Art Deco.

One of the most recognizable costume jewelry pieces made for Chanel were the Maltese cross cuffs created by Fulco di Verdura who started his career at Chanel as the head of textiles. Chanel had passed him jewels given to her by Grand Duke Dimitri, her former lover, to be reset. Verdura crafted the gems into dramatic, hinged cuffs that became a Chanel signature.

6. Sunbathing

Chanel sunbathing

Chanel sunbathing with sister Gabrielle in 1918 (left) and ‘elegant internationals’ sunning themselves in Tangier in 1964. Left photo from Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux and right photo from Look Magazine, January 1964.

Tans were a no-no in young Coco’s time. Brown skin implied that you had to labor outdoors for a living, while a lily-white complexion indicated an aristocratic existence where zero work was involved.

This view changed in 1923 when Chanel, now a confirmed celebrity, accidentally got sunburned on a cruise in the Riviera. The photographs of her with bronzed skin gave rise to a new beauty ideal. Tanned skin now meant wealth and status — only the rich could hang out on beaches throughout the year while the masses shivered at home.

Sunbathing became so fashionable that even Vogue back in 1927 had their say on it. ‘One has to be sunburned smartly, and to be so, one must needs make a serious business of it: First of acquiring it, then of dressing for it. And those who don’t recognise the importance of this credo are apt to be more sunburned than smart.’

7. Shoulder bags with chain straps

Catherine Deneuve Chanel

Catherine Deneuve with Johnny Hallyday. That’s a Chanel bag nestled under her arm.

The most coveted It Bag in the world is Chanel’s iconic 2.55 flap bag, named after the date that she unveiled it in February 1955. Legend has it that its bordeaux lining was inspired by the clothing she wore as an orphan on charity, yet this seems quite curious given the extent the designer went to in concealing her origins. Young women of means at the type of boarding school that Chanel attended, however, wore fine cashmere garments in a distinct garnet shade. Could the bag’s interior color have been inspired by them?

1955 was a memorable year for Chanel. The year before, she had launched her first collection after an absence of 15 years, an absence where Christian Dior was now the star of couture after introducing his New Look in 1947. Chanel’s designs seemed antiquated and severe in comparison, and the French press gave her 1954 comeback savage reviews.

Across the pond, it was a different story. Chanel’s new collection was warmly received by the American press and sold out on Seventh Avenue. Against all odds the out-of-touch couturiere was back in demand, her style philosophy — ‘A garment must be logical’ — making complete sense to a new generation.

The 2.55 bag she launched in 1955 embodied the chic functionality Chanel sought in every thing she produced. Every feature was thoroughly thought through. For example, the chain straps acted as jewelry while their shoulder length freed up women’s hands.

Through its many iterations through the decades, Chanel’s quilted bag remains a constant style aspiration, proof of the enduring genius of its design. Only perhaps Hermes’ Kelly and Birkin bags are as recognized and coveted, having also stood the test of time.

8. Tweed suits

Chanel tweed suits through the ages

Chanel tweed suits through the ages, left to right: Snappy ensembles featured in Vogue, January 1964; an abbreviated pastel jacket and skirt from Vogue, March 1990; style blogger Alexandra Lapp in the modern incarnation of jeans and Chanel jacket.

Another great example of Chanel’s appropriation of an unassuming medium and repurposing it into a timeless creation is her signature tweed suit.

Tweed is a sturdy woolen fabric normally associated with outdoor pursuits such as hunting, shooting and cycling. When Chanel took up with her English lover, the Duke of Westminster, in the mid-1920s, she liberally borrowed his tweed jackets for outdoor activities. It must have been these tweeds that inspired her to create her first tweed garments in the 1930s, and eventually the skirt suit that became a hallmark of her design house.

Charming as it is, Chanel suits are designed with engineer-worthy functional rigor. For example, a slim chain is sewn into each jacket’s lining at the hem, weighing down the garment for a perfect silhouette. It’s just one of the many fastidious details Chanel introduced that put her designs in a league of their own.

9. The two-tone shoe

Chanel two-tone shoes

Chanel’s two-tone shoe is both versatile and flattering.

The little tweed suit. The cascades of faux pearls. The quilted flap bag with chain handles. All these are elements in a quintessential head-to-toe look that, although aped by many, will always be attributed to Chanel. And that look is punctuated by the two-tone shoe that she introduced in 1957.

Sporting a sensible heel, the shoe had a beige body that seemed like an extension of the foot, ending in a black cap toe. The silhouette was immensely flattering, visually lengthening the leg. ‘We leave in the morning with a beige and black, we lunch with beige and black, we go to a cocktail party with beige and black,’ Chanel reportedly said during the shoe’s launch. ‘We are dressed from morning to night!’

Like the 2.55 bag, the two-tone shoe sports a new look season after season while retaining its core stylistic elements.

10. Synthetics in fragrance

Catherine Deneuve for Chanel No. 5, 1977

Catherine Deneuve in a Chanel No. 5 ad from 1977

Before the 1920s, women’s fragrances were powdery, floral, single-note concoctions that were at stark odds with Chanel’s bold designs. She teamed up with premier perfume blender Ernest Beaux in 1921 to create a fragrance that would be like no other.

Beaux played around with multiple notes and, among the samples he provided the designer, one was truly unique. It contained aldehydes, synthetic compounds that added a mesmerizing sparkle to the natural essences. This scent didn’t smell like a rose or a lily. It smelt complex and memorable, like a woman.

It was this sample, the fifth that Beaux presented, that captivated Chanel. Hence the name Chanel No. 5.

Chanel broke tradition not just with the use of aldehydes, which kick started the great aldehydic florals in history, but also with package design. No. 5’s rectangular bottle was minimalist, almost severely so, and square, like a whiskey flask. It was the complete antithesis of the elaborate, sculpted crystal fragrance bottles that were characteristic of the time. Designed for the machine age, the bottle remains fresh and current nearly 100 years after its conception.

‘Elegance is refusal,’ is one of Chanel’s most famous quotes. Perhaps it is this maxim that is at the heart of her success, and why the looks she championed continue to endure.

Photo of Alexandra Lapp in Chanel first appeared on her fashion blog.

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