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






United Airlines Commits Brand Suicide

As a marketing professional and teacher, I have always focused on the importance of customer service in my consulting, teaching and as a practitioner. Now there is no question airlines have the reputation for not caring for their customers. On a personal note, there was a time when I really enjoyed flying but now I hate it and do everything to avoid flying unless I really have to.

United Airlines dragging that poor guy off a flight last week, takes the cake. United Airlines has outraged a billion Chinese and Vietnamese along with Canadians, Americans and Europeans.

“Brand genocide.” A “world-class debacle on an epic scale.” A “gruesome, epic-scale fail.” These are a few of the phrases a top crisis manager uses to describe United Airlines’ removal-by-dragging of a passenger on an overbooked flight.

Eric Schiffer, CEO of, states that United’s new gaffe is even worse than its last PR mess, in which it barred female travelers for wearing leggings.

“It’s a gruesome, epic-scale fail that follows their leggings crash landing. At United, their CEO ( It might be hard to believe, but it’s true: United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was named PR Week’s Communicator of the Year in March.) is clearly clueless about dealing with the public and the customers, and they are embarking on brand genocide with a brand that was trusted and loved that is now causing people to generate stress hormones when they hear the name,” Schiffer said. “This is everything that you learn as a brander as to what not to do. It’s like they’ve gone to the Donald Trump School of Media Relations.”

“The CEO is absolving himself of anything, “Instead of taking responsibility, he just said there’s an internal investigation that will take place. It’s going to be next to impossible to completely recover from this unless they do something much bolder than their CEO’s announcement. Brand is all about trust, and what you are trusting an airline to do is to get you where you need to go. And the fact that they did this is going to eclipse any sort of advertisement and PR they are trying to do.”

As Josh Freed points out in the Gazette in an age of anger, United has  allowed us all to laugh together at a new industry of airline jokes.

United’s new slogan should be:

     United: Putting the Hospital Back in Hospitality

     Board as doctors, leave as patients

     If we cannot beat our competitors, we beat our customers  was one that  came from China

    Full seating? prepare for a beating.

    There are three ways to board at United: pre-boarding, late boarding and water boarding.

The funniest line is actually a new ad by Southwest, a U.S. airline that’s started a PR campaign announcing: “We beat our competition, not our customers.”

Freed points out that United is a reminder that airlines make almost all of us feel powerless and worthless. Not only must we pay extra fees for our food, water, luggage, legroom and miniature seat — but we’re treated like livestock.

Let’s sum up the flying experience: You drive to the airport several hours early as instructed, then line up like cattle in mobbed ticket lines, before heading to security where you’re prodded, probed, X-rayed, interrogated and humiliated. Then you line up another 45 minutes at the gate watching better classes of flier enter before you. The ordeal supposedly ends when you board the plane and collapse with relief into your seat.

Yet even then you aren’t safe, because the ticket you purchased and paid for 5 weeks ago isn’t necessarily yours. It turns out there’s fine print in the contract no one but airline lawyers read that states they can take your seat away anytime, for any reason. About the only possible humiliation left is to kick you off the flight in mid-air — and charge you for the parachute.

Freed `s  description of airlines will be very familiar to travelers. They are the most visible symbol of every arrogant, aggravating service encounter you’ve ever had with companies who don’t care about costumer service, or customers.

United’s president symbolized this with his head literally in the clouds, initially suggesting the bloodied, beaten flier was a “volunteer” who had been re-accommodated. “He reminded us all of the parroting we hear from customer service people who chirp things like: “We are doing our best to rectify and optimize your service experience. “But all our agents are busy with an unusually high volume of calls. Please stay on hold until the next eclipse.”

If airlines want to bump people from their flight because they’ve over-booked — or suddenly need the seat — they should have to pay passengers enough to feel they were treated, not cheated.


Marketing Workbooks for Public Sector & Non-Profit Marketers & Communicators

These two workbooks are  ideal for marketers and communicators working for government departments/agencies, non-profit/volunteer organizations, associations and social enterprises who are responsible for:

  • Marketing programs, products, programs and/or services
  • Social marketing, community outreach and public education programs


1. Social Marketing Planning to Change Attitudes and Behaviours Workbook

This workbook provides users with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for a successful social marketing program to change attitudes and behaviours. This content is the result of more than 30 years of direct experience in the social marketing arena.  It will assist public sector, non-profit organizations and associations involved in marketing, communications, public awareness/education and outreach.

It will be very relevant to those responsible for influencing attitudes and behaviours to improve health, prevent injuries and diseases, protect the environment, prepare citizens for emergencies, convince youth to stay in school, and a multitude of today’s critical issues.

The workbook guides users through the process for creating a customized social marketing plan for their organization that will lead to successful implementation. It also features ideas on how to run a campaign on a very tight budget and the effective use of a logic model to monitor and evaluate an organization’s social marketing initiative.

To purchase workbook go to

Order Now and You’ll receive a PDF download immediately!

Alternatively, you can register on our MARCOM Conference site to attend an upcoming Introduction to Social Marketing Planning for Behaviour Change Workshop where we offer the workbook as part of 1-day interactive workshop

2. Marketing 101 for Marketers and Non-Marketers Workbook

The world of public sector and non-profit marketing is rapidly changing. Increasing demands are being placed on managers to adapt to their new environments. The public and non-profit sectors are adopting marketing approaches to help meet the challenges of complex and difficult mandates and satisfying client needs in the face of significantly diminishing resources.

This workbook provides users with an end-to-end planning tool that lays the groundwork for developing a successful public sector or non-profit marketing program.

It also will provide you with an overview of public sector and non-profit marketing and highlight the importance of market research to support a decision-making framework.

Included will be the exploration of the strategic elements of a marketing plan and how to transform organizations from using the traditional communications approach to an integrated, strategic marketing approach. We also review the key elements of  branding which is an integral component in designing the marketing mix.

To purchase workbook, go to

Order Now and you will receive a PDF download immediately!

Alternatively, you can register on our Training Page to attend an upcoming Marketing 101 Workshop where we offer the workbook as part of the course.


About the Author: Jim Mintz a marketing veteran with over 30 years of experience is the Managing Partner of the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing




Avoid “Marketing Speak” like the Plague


Unique, one-of-a-kind, best-of-breed and on it goes. We see this type of marketing speak over and over in marketing materials. And let’s be honest, we’ve all used it at one time or another.  When you’re writing about your own program product or service, it’s easy to fall into the habit of hype and hyperbole. It’s understandable. After all, ultimately you’re hoping your ad, pitch, brochure, email or website marketing copy will capture attention and get readers to do something. So, you have to impress with your words.

However, you are probably well aware that your audiences are more skeptical today, than ever before. Everyone has become more attuned to marketing and promotion efforts. Many marketing adjectives are so used that the words no longer have any real meaning. In fact, they do nothing except maybe hurt your reputation and that of the products and services you are selling.

Mike Williams of Ring Partners suggests that you think twice before using these “fluff” words in your marketing

Advanced: This word is applied to nearly everything from advanced technology to advanced ingredients. This word is a prime example of being overused to the point that all value has been eroded.

Best: Using this word really makes marketers look dumb. You’re much better off letting your audience figure this one out. Instead of saying that you’re the best, get a quote from someone else who compares you to your competitors and labels you as the best.

Cutting Edge: This phrase is absolutely done. Anytime this is used it just sounds like drivel. Your audience will look over this and their eyes will literally glaze over.

Bleeding edge: This is a favorite in the technology industry. Apparently when “cutting edge” wasn’t enough, marketers started using “bleeding edge.”

Exclusive: Really? How do you plan to make any money if your product is that exclusive? Unless you are marketing your services as being available to only one person, whatever you’re selling isn’t really exclusive.

Groundbreaking: (or its cousins, breakthrough and late-breaking): Unless your product is up to par with the iPhone, sliced bread, or the Model T Ford this label isn’t really applicable. Very few products are actually groundbreaking. Don’t claim to be this when you know that’s really not the case.

Pioneering: This term always elicits lots of eye rolls. Unless you’ve got groundbreaking research to back up your product, or your product has never been available in any form or fashion, steer clear of using this unimpressive word.

Revolutionary: This term isn’t only overused, it’s inappropriate. Unless your product or service has resulted in starting a revolution, you shouldn’t be adding this to your list of marketing adjectives.

Unique: Yes, all marketers think their product or service is special. But like the term best, it’s better if you let your audience come to this conclusion. Try describing features and benefits instead of claiming uniqueness. Claiming originality rarely convinces anyone.

It’s true that most marketing professionals have been guilty of using these phrases and terms at one point or another, and sometimes even after being warned, these words often sneak through.

However, being aware of these marketing faux pas will help you avoid using these terms when you make a pitch or publish content. Frankly using these type of words amounts to “lazy marketing”. Your audience will always see right through this.

I’ll be the first to admit that as a marketer I’ve used these words a number of times in my writing throughout the years, and sometimes they still sneak through. But as long as you’re aware, you can hopefully catch yourself before you publish a piece of content about your groundbreaking, revolutionary program, product or service.