Brand Activism … Big Opportunity for Non-Profits

Well here it comes brand activism the breakthrough concept in marketing management.  This is clearly going to be a big opportunity for nonprofits and governments with major causes who are looking to partner with the private sector.

Historically, most brands have been marketed on their performance characteristics. “Our toothpaste is better than yours.” We’re better at “whitening teeth,” “preventing cavities,” or giving you “fresh breath.” Positioning is the name of the game in brand marketing.

But positioning is no longer enough in our highly competitive markets. Just consider marketing to millennials, one of today’s largest demographic groups. Millennials have high expectations for brands. Millennials live in a world filled with constant problems – air pollution, bad drinking water, crimes. Many would like brands to show concern not just for profits but for the communities they serve, and the world we live in.  In fact, more and more, we see a yearning for jobs that have a higher meaning than profit-making.

Christian Sarkar and Phil Kotler have broken down brand activism into its component parts and in doing have highlighted both the opportunities and risks that brands take when adopting an activist stance.

They represent brand activism as being a natural evolution from corporate social responsibility; the next iteration where those businesses that are more evolved in this area have moved from marketing or corporate driven operations into models driven by values.

This is not entirely a new phenomenon. The original flag bearers for brand activism such as Ben & Jerry’s (1978), The Body Shop (1976) and Ecover (1980) came of age with the independent thinkers of Generation X. The pace at which brands have adopted activist tendencies has accelerated, driven in large part by presence on social and the pressing need to be relevant to an ever-more challenging universe of consumers.

Kotler and Sarkar talk about the different aspects of brand activism, breaking them down as follows:

  • Social activism – broadly about discrimination or community-based issues
  • Legal activism – referring to taxation, employment rights etc.
  • Business activism – including governance, pay ratios and unionization
  • Economic activism – such as living wage and minimum wage, gender pay gap etc.
  • Political activism – highly connected to politics but also voting and voter turnout
  • Environmental activism – stretches across the full environmental agenda

It is apparent where some brands will be able to act with credibility against the different areas while others will not. And here’s the rub, acting with legitimacy in one area will in no way make up for lack of accountability or transparency in others.

McDonald’s found this out the hard way with its Pay With Lovin initiative in the US (pay with hugs, high fives rather than cash); a good example of social activism, about inclusivity, tolerance and a sense of shared experience which would have been lovely (albeit unlikely to have translated well across markets) were it not marred by minimum wage challenges and a demand for unionization . NY Times Blog

Jo Arden points out what has become apparent recently is that there is an increasing intoxication when participation and activism come together. Consumers are open to immersive experiences with brands they buy from in which they have a reasonable degree of interest. There is a huge opportunity to make those immersive experiences connect to activism – so long as both the activism and the experience are relevant and appealing to the consumer.

She argues that deep customer insight underpins all of this and has never been more important. Sarkar and Kotler make a very interesting point in their groundbreaking paper that not all activism is progressive. The example they cite is tobacco advertising in the 1950s where tobacco manufacturers pitched their healthy positioning hard against all evidence to the contrary. In doing that they were in part standing side-by-side with consumers who rejected the data and objected to growing health lobby and government intervention.

Her view is that in the coming years it will be interesting to see how many brands echo the political and societal shift which speaks to the counter-narrative, one which does not meet the ideologically liberal view of brand activism. There are brands that know their heartland is consumers that voted for Trump, for Brexit, that campaign against gay marriage, female clergy and that support the regressive policies in relation to human rights that are currently being discussed.

Alex Lirtsman is of the view that the collision between consumer’s buying on brand values and the heightened ethical awareness, consumers are voting with their dollars more than ever before. Brand activism is gaining traction—and has the power to shape our economies and culture.

In a recent Forbes study, 75 percent of millennials state it’s important that the brands they buy from give back to society. Tech savvy and social media obsessed generations aren’t afraid to hold brands accountable online and in public spheres, as evident by recent boycotts like the Grab Your Wallet campaign against brands with connections to Trump. Inversely, most of the companies who took a clear stance against the travel ban saw their stock prices rise. Companies like Netflix, Starbucks, Facebook, and Microsoft have done quite well since they started taking a position on social injustices, in both positive social mentions and stock performance.

Lirtsman points out that brands like Nike, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) (in Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op ), and Starbucks are thriving as they develop a more purposeful voice, without needing to become purely corporate social responsibility (CSR)-driven companies. It’s simple: be true to your values. It’s not all about politics, it’s about understanding that businesses in civil society have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right.

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. Those audiences don’t just want their employers and favorite brands to reflect their values, they expect them to. And no brand is exempt. Even Skittles spoke out when dragged into the conversation about Syrian refugees. No surprise, it was a hit with frustrated, disenchanted millennials looking for any signs of hope that those with a platform to speak out care about using their position for good.

Every brand has an issue that’s dear to its heart and resonates with their audiences. Finding a cause should not be a problem in the current climate, but having the empathy and self-awareness to speak about it authentically is. It’s about embedding the brand’s core values and exercising vigilance and good governance. The issues can be nuanced, but at the end of the day, authenticity is evident.

There’s an unspoken agreement that a brand’s values are a declaration of what it stands for and seeks to defend. Any brands that advocate and evangelize their diversity, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, and any other important issue of our day should be benefiting from the heightened ethical and moral awareness that we’re seeing. And in an age when buying from a brand is a vote for its values, establishing a clear purpose and authentically supporting it does not just put the brand on the right side of history, it impacts the bottom line.

As Phil Kotler points out (Brand Activism, the Next Stage of Branding) “Marketing and business itself is not working for the many, [but] for the few, While marketing programs have primarily focused on shareholders, they must also be concerned with the people producing the product, using it, being positively and negatively affected by it. Ultimately, these stakeholders influence the brand value and feasibility for market growth. With tools like social media, stakeholders can communicate globally and more efficiently than ever before. If you really want to make more money for the shareholders, you need to change your whole view of the stakeholders.”

The evolution of brand activism in business is an opportunity for differentiation and purpose-driven engagement. This sentiment is explained in “Why Making Money is Not Enough” (Sloan Management Review)

The problem with industrial capitalism today is not the profit motive; the problem is how the profit motive is usually framed. There is a persistent myth in the contemporary business world that the ultimate purpose of a business is to maximize profit for the company’s investors. However, the maximization of profit is not a purpose; instead, it is an outcome. We argue that the best way to maximize profits over the long term is to not make them the primary goal.

Brand activism emerges as a values-driven agenda for companies that care about the future of society and the planet’s health. The underlying force for progress is a sense of justice and fairness for all.


Check out our Marketing Workshops for Public Sector and Non-Profit Organizations





Happy 150th birthday Canada! Let’s Celebrate!

July 1 is Canada’s 150th anniversary. For those readers of my blog who are not from Canada, the historical moment we commemorate is Confederation when a number of politicians in 1867 signed a document that bound a loose collection of provinces controlled by the British Empire into a somewhat vague and discontented unity.

Confederation was an attempt at compromise between peoples within a unified political framework. It doesn’t seem ideal, as an origin but Canada managed to reach proper independence, with the right to amend our Constitution without approval from Britain, which we only did in 1982.

Well here we are in 2017, 150 years later and Canada has a lot to celebrate. Our prime minister Justin Trudeau is glamorous and internationally recognized as a celebrity of progressive politics. We are among the last societies in the West not totally consumed by loathing of others. Canada leads the Group of 7 countries in economic growth. Our cultural power is real: Drake recently had 24 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time — for one shining moment he was nearly a quarter of popular music. Frankly, it’s not going to get much better than this for little old Canada.

Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, articulated Canada’s difference from other countries perfectly: “There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian,” he said when he was prime minister in 1971. “What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”

Canadians are very fortunate to live in a country where no wars have been fought for two hundred years. A country with big freedoms – freedom of movement, freedom of political choice, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary persecution. Canada is, according to several international surveys, the most tolerant country in the world.  Yes, Canada is no Utopia. We still have poverty and racism and all the other problems people wrestle with – including, petty stuff that we sometimes agonize over where many countries wish they had our problems. But Canadians need to celebrate what we have … a great country.

Canadians are a very modest people and we are not big on patriotism except when we watch Olympic Hockey.  So, although there will be celebrations in communities across Canada for our 150th and a big splash on Parliament Hill on July 1st, Canadians will just love our country quietly. As we don’t want to make too big a fuss.

The virtues of Canada and its culture make overt celebration and flag waving somewhat difficult. Canada’s real glories are its hospitals and its public schools, but those, unlike the Marine Corps, cannot be paraded.

As Stephen Marche points out in his article in the New York Times  Canada Doesn’t Know How to Party, “the fact that Canadians are very reluctant to celebrate itself too much is actually something worth celebrating. It has become abundantly clear in 2017 that patriotism is for losers. Patriotism is for people and for countries that need to justify their existence through symbols rather than achievements. Canada is doing well enough that it doesn’t require spackled vanity.”

Canadian Identity

Now don’t get me wrong Canadians have some great attributes which are unique, famous Canadian author Pierre Berton pointed out many years ago, “a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe without tipping it”.

And during the winter, one of our favorite sports is Curling which is sort of Shuffleboard on ice where participants continually yell at each other and don’t apologize (Canadians are very apologetic).

And how do you know if you are a Canadian?

  • You put on shorts as soon as it hits plus 10 C, even if there is still snow around
  • You use a red pen on your non-Canadian textbooks and fill in the missing ‘u’s from labor, honor, and color
  • You have Canadian Tire money in your kitchen drawers
  • Someone accidentally stepped on your foot. You apologize.
  • You stepped on someone’s foot. You apologize, then apologize for making them apologize
  • Your local Dairy Queen is closed from September through May
  • Someone in a Home Depot offers you assistance… and they don’t work there
  • You’ve had a lengthy telephone conversation with someone who dialed the wrong number
  • You have switched from “heat” to “A/C” in the same day and back again
  • You install security lights on your house and garage, but leave both unlocked
  • You carry jumpers in your car and your wife knows how to use them
  • You design your kid’s Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit
  • The speed limit on the highway is 80 km and you’re going 90 and everybody is passing you
  • Driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow
  • You know all 4 seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and road construction.

A few years ago, an article crossed my desk that just blew me away. There was a report in the world news that someone in Pakistan had placed an ad in a newspaper with an offer of a reward to anyone who killed a Canadian… any Canadian.

Who in God’s name would want to kill a peace-loving people like Canadians kind of boggles my mind but I guess there are a lot of unbalanced people out there.

Anyway, according to this article (which unfortunately does not have a source) an Australian dentist wrote the following piece to help define what a Canadian is, so that they would know one when they found one. Here is what he wrote.

“A Canadian can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan.

A Canadian may also be a Cree, Metis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux or one of the many tribes known as native Canadians. (Note he forgot our northern neighbours the Inuit). Canadian religious beliefs range from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or none. In fact, there are more Muslims in Canada than in Afghanistan. The key difference is that in Canada, they are free to worship as each of them chooses. Whether they have a religion or no religion, each Canadian ultimately answers only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God. A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous lands in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which recognizes the right of each person to the pursuit of happiness.

A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking a thing in return. Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds. But they also welcome the least, -the oppressed, the outcast and the rejected. These are the people who build Canada.

You can try to kill a Canadian if you must, as other blood- thirsty tyrants in the world have tried but, in doing so, you could just be killing a relative or a neighbour. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, can be Canadian. “

On this our 150th birthday, let us all take time to reflect upon and commemorate the richness and diversity of our Canadian heritage. Let us celebrate Canada’s contributions to the world. We are an impressive country of growth, diplomacy, vision, entrepreneurial spirit and strong work ethic, while maintaining a sense of togetherness in good and challenging times. We are a young country, yet rich in history and culture. Our greatest ambassadors are the people.

And so, to my fellow Canadians, Happy Birthday Canada!

Also check out 150 reasons why it’s better to be Canadian To celebrate Canada’s big birthday, MacLean’s present one reason to love the country for every single year since 1867

Should Government be run like a Business?


As I pointed out in my post a few years ago, one of the big questions discussed in the public-sector, is should government be run like a business? In addition, we have seen many examples of business people running for office suggesting that they can improve government by running it like a business.

For example, Donald Trump, a billionaire business tycoon is now the CEO of the United States of America. He has said his country should “run like a business.” But he’s far from alone in that belief. In Canada, Kevin O’Leary has said, before he backed out, he’d be a good prime minister because, “You need someone who has run a business.”

Now, very few people would question that government should run some of their operations using a business approach and there are clearly some business practices when applied to government make a lot of sense. But when applying business practices like marketing for example, they should be done in the context of a public-sector environment.

For example, at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing (CEPSM) we pride ourselves in understanding the needs and constraints of the public sector and deliver marketing solutions that are strategic, innovative and practical to meet the unique needs and challenges of governments.

The issue of overlaying private sector solutions to the public sector has many challenges, however if done right it can work. But those who want to bring business practices into government should have a full understanding and appreciation of how government functions.

It must be conceded that governments at all levels have provided too much ammunition for critics. They’ve been guilty of bonehead practices that seem to cry out for rigid, businesslike control. As an article in the Toronto Star points out the federal government rolls out a shiny new payroll system, and thousands of employees still aren’t getting the right amount of dollars in their paycheque, and some aren’t getting a paycheque at all. The Ontario government’s schemes for green energy seem to blow up as surely as a stick of dynamite in the hands of Wile E. Coyote.

But for every example of government incompetence, there’s a business example.

Volkswagen programmed its engines to control emissions only when they were being tested in labs. Once those engines hit the road, they emitted 40 times more pollution. Not to be outdone, Fiat Chrysler installed engine software to disguise the fact that illegal amounts of nitrogen oxides were getting into the air. To be clear, this wasn’t accidental. In the words of the California Air Resources Board, “A major automaker made the business decision to skirt the rules.”

Takata put faulty airbags in millions of North American cars. Then it prepared falsified reports to cover it up. At least 16 people have been killed by those airbags exploding violently.

Of course, risking the health of its customers isn’t an uncommon business practice. Big Tobacco spent years denying that smoking caused cancer. Now it more often wraps its lethal work in the veneer of personal freedom. It argues that smoking cigarettes is simply something a grown-up should be allowed to do. Some businesses wouldn’t know a moral principle if it kicked them in the pants. Say what you like about government, but it doesn’t deliberately set out every day to provide people with the means to kill themselves.

John Harvey points out in Forbes, the idea that government should be run like a business is a popular one. But this betrays a basic misunderstanding of the roles of the private and public sector. We should no more want the government to be run like a business than a business to be run like the government.

Those popularizing this notion feel this way because they see business as more efficient. This must be the case, so the logic goes, or the entity in question would lose market share and go bankrupt. Only the fit survives. Meanwhile, government agencies face no backlash. This is why we have long lines to get driver’s licenses etc. Were there a choice on where to be licensed to drive, then such offices would be forced to make the customer’s experience a positive one or they would go elsewhere.

Mickey Edwards points out in the Atlantic , I have a problem with the continued promotion of business success as a qualifier for public office. Success in the market is not an automatic disqualifier for public service, but it is a far different undertaking with different purposes and different values.  In fact, business and government — while there may be skills involved that are translatable and useful as one moves from one sphere to another — are in some ways polar opposite undertakings.

The business of business is business and the goal of business is to earn a profit in the provision of goods and services. The business of government is service — well managed, one hopes, and not wasteful, but never at a profit.(there are occasions where government operates their services on a cost recovery basis).  Business and government are not opposites, but they are distinct; the mindset is necessarily different; the understandings are different; the obligations are different.

Unlike private sector organizations − which have the distinct advantage of being able to offer services on the strength of market demand and profitability − government organizations have a mandate to serve and be accessible to all constituents. Governments cannot choose their customers. In fact, customers often have a right to access a service thereby creating an obligation for a government agency.  By comparison, any private sector business can analyze their markets and opt to target customers with specific characteristics or needs.  They can quickly retreat when confronted by poor performing results, undesirable segments, or onerous challenges.

In an article titled Running government like a business has been a dismal failure, Donald Savoie states that the notion that public administration could be made to look like private-sector management has been ill-conceived, misguided and costly to taxpayers. Management in the private sector has everything to do with the bottom line and market share. Administration in the public sector is a matter of opinion, debate and blame avoidance in a politically charged environment. It doesn’t much matter in the private sector if you get it wrong 40 per cent of the time so long as you turn a handsome profit and increase market share. It doesn’t much matter in the public sector if you get it right 99 per cent of the time, if you get 1 per cent wrong it becomes a heated issue for a politician and the media

Government was intentionally designed to be inefficient. Our government is supposed to be slowed down by oversight, due process, and fair treatment of a vast array of constituencies that make up the public.

It’s also myth that businesses typically operate in a lean and efficient manner, and therefore should be emulated in the public sector. Government and business are both operated by humans, with all their diverse motivations, interests and foibles. The most mind-numbingly inefficient and unresponsive bureaucracies some would argue are actually in the private sector, not government. Most weren’t even failing businesses; they are just so big they didn’t particularly feel the need to be efficient or responsive to individual customers.

If you want to think of businesses scaled to the size of national governments, don’t think of nimble and innovative startups that are staffed by young people doing cool and highly lucrative things. Think of your phone company, or your cable/satellite company, or your insurance company, or large, corporate banks, all with uninspired customer service reps who couldn’t make quick and useful decisions for you if they wanted to. Is that what you want government to emulate?

The long and short of it is quite simple, those who advocate that public-sector managers should operate like their private-sector counterparts without understanding the context of how political and administrative institutions function are clearly misinformed. There is no question that there are opportunities for government to adopt business practices from time to time, but government is not a business and those who continually argue for government acting like a business are offering a misguided solution.


Is Government Failing in a Digital World

In a recent article, Gerry McGovern a well-known digital blogger states that Government, like all organizations, claims to exist to serve citizens but in reality, is usually more interested in serving itself. Digital is increasingly exposing government incompetence and how remote from the real life of people so many in government are (particularly at a senior level).

This year, Canada`s Auditor General Michael Ferguson wrote, “we see government programs that are not designed to help those who have to navigate them, programs where the focus is more on what civil servants are doing than on what citizens are getting, where delivery times are long, where data is incomplete, and where public reporting does not provide a clear picture of what departments have done.”

He goes on to state, “our audits come across these same problems in different organizations time and time again …. when we come back to audit the same area again, we often find that program results have not improved.”

Paul Shetler resigned as Australia’s government head of digital transformation. He has talked about how it became impossible for him to witness a string of “cataclysmic” IT failures, about how this is “not a crisis of IT” but a “crisis of government”.

He criticized the government’s response to its latest IT crisis, telling Guardian Australia it was symptomatic of a culture of blame aversion within the bureaucracy. “It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,” Shetler said. “They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide. “The justifications that have been given I think are just another example of the culture of ‘good news’ reporting, i.e. only good news goes up through the bureaucracy.  “It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,”. “They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide.

McGovern asks what is Government good for? Does it actually serve ordinary people or just special interests? Is government capable of dealing with digital transformation? Government just assumes it can continue being the same old government. There are, of course, a great many government workers who do excellent work, but they often do this great work in conflict with the very institutions they work for. As you go up the bureaucratic management tree the eyes look ever upwards, seeking to please the politicians and massage egos.

“You’ve got an entire bureaucracy of IT bureaucrats who are backed by large vendors,” Shetler states. These two groups are locked in a love-hate affair. Most of the people involved in this sordid affair have never once seen an actual citizen use the IT Titanic monstrosities that they allow to sail out with unrelenting regularity. The idea of creating something that’s simple to use is utterly alien to these people. Citizens are supposed to use what they’re given and be grateful. Only when things explode in an absolute mess are they forced to grudgingly look around and find someone else to blame.

“Policy is not just something you dream up on a piece of paper,” Shetler states. “It’s actually also the results that you see on the streets.” And that’s the very problem with government. It measures itself based on the creation of the policy and its ‘communication’ to the media. And the further up in government you go, the more relentless that navel-gazing focus becomes.

The problems that plagued the launch of — the online data hub and insurance marketplace central to healthcare reform in the USA will someday fill a book.

In Canada, we have the fiasco known as the Phoenix payroll system, a state-of-the-art computerized marvel with which the government has underpaid tens of thousands of its employees, overpaid thousands more, and paid nothing at all to the rest for months at a time, all at an estimated extra cost of $50 million.


Shared Services Canada, responsible for all of the federal government’s computer operations, hoped to have installed a new unified email system across all government departments by March 2018 that was supposed to have been finished by March 2015.

There is also an attempt to bring all of the Canadian government’s 1,500 websites onto a common platform. Originally budgeted at $1.5 million, it was to have been completed by March 2017. With just 0.05 per cent of the estimated 17 million pages of federal content online having been moved over to the new site, it is now aiming at a December 2017 deadline — at 10 times the original cost. There are also the internal costs which are now projected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly even $1 billion. The new deadline is widely regarded as a fantasy.

As McGovern points out Government must become useful again, and to do that it must measure the outcome of the policy. It must measure the use of what it creates and rapidly learn and evolve based on use. What is digital transformation? What is being transformed? Digital is just the enabler of transformation. It is the government, the senior bureaucrats and the politicians who must be transformed.