Cultivating Brand Activism? Pointers to Help Businesses Decide and Plan

by Andrea Fryrear

From the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins to #BlackLivesMatter to saying goodbye to Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, social activism is the latest must-have for brands.

But should you join in? And if so, how can you do so without seeming cynical, especially if this is your first time dipping your toes into the social justice water?

Brand activism is a significant change in mission alignment with social issues, not just a short-term tactical move. This shift must be addressed mindfully and with longevity in mind. Crucially, by performing this shift into activism correctly, we as marketers might be able to tip the scales of society and achieve change through these tumultuous times. Most of our planning energy occurs at the moment of maximum ignorance; we spend so much energy creating strategic documents assuming nothing will change for long periods of time, which, as 2020 has shown, is a less than ideal way of thinking.

The agile mindset and its framework offers an alternative way. Meaningful brand activism with an agile mindset will let us make lasting connections with causes that will resonate with both our brand image and our customers.

Strategy Is Key for Agile Marketers

Agile marketing can be proactive as well as reactive. I read an article that claimed to be about agile marketing that mused, “Can you plan to be agile? Isn’t that cheating?” There’s an oddly resilient myth that agility has more to do with being able to react in real time, as opposed to plan or strategy.

That’s not only incorrect, but it’s also a terrible idea for marketers expected to steer the ship of brand health over the long term. The important takeaway is that strategy matters — even when we’re responding to sudden change.

Even in brand activism, the most important thing is for a business to know — really, actually know — its brand. Then, the business’s leaders will be able to see how their brand aligns with cultural moments. If they can find a strong reason for their brand to join the conversation, then it’s time for them to examine the possible variations from their existing messaging. How much can a business change without going backward in its brand identity?

Once a business’s leaders have found a happy medium for degree of change, it’s important they respond as close to real time as possible. They need to really commit to the idea of a minimum viable campaign — the smallest amount of work that still achieves goals — and get it in front of their audience. Then, over time, they should expand it and reiterate.

Strike a Balance between Agility and Stability

As a business’s leaders figure out what their desirable degree of change is, they should be mindful that work undone is a form of waste. There’s a lot of value in finishing work already started before pivoting to something new.

One approach is to find ways to make small, piecemeal adjustments to marketing plans, rather than jumping into many simultaneous new initiatives.

A business’s marketing work should already have the foundation of strong organizational values; there should be clear moments of intersection between cultural movements and its current marketing. Rapid response is not unimportant, but it won’t help over time if the marketing strategy is nothing but a series of pivots and reactions.

Learn, Err, Repeat and Improve

If a business’s leaders start with their organization’s core values and go forward with a minimum viable campaign, they can count on a feedback loop with their audience and customers to tweak and finesse their messaging over time.

As the new messaging starts to hit the business’s audience, its leaders need to be attentive to reactions and outcomes — to see what works and what doesn’t, and then take the feedback and improve as they go.

This mindset of continual iterations can be hugely powerful, but it only works if we start from the minimum viable starting point. When we put it all out there immediately, it’s much more difficult to adjust for long-term success.

Perform Seven Generation Thinking

Finally, business leaders need to understand that brand activism isn’t just a commitment for a quarter and then left behind. If social justice matters to an organization, the shift to activism must be long-lasting and continuous.

Once a business’s leaders make the commitment real, they should then take time to consider the market implications of this wholesale adjustment. Will this commitment mean rethinking advertising channels and leaving behind those not socially aligned? Are there parts of the messaging that could use an update? How can a business and its brand’s platform support ongoing change? Business leaders need to truly consider and listen to the reactions they receive. Too often, we stop considering our own humanity when we’re in marketing mode, but this intentionality on the individual level should be translated to our brand marketing efforts.

Iterate toward a Meaningful Intersection

Those business leaders who have not done this already should take the time to really consider their organizational and brand value and how they fit with the current social justice movements.

They can start by looking for an authentic intersection, and begin a steady, iterative march toward it. Business leaders should deliver valuable marketing collateral as often as possible, then listen to feedback and adjust as needed.

Once a business has arrived at the intersection between its brand and activism, its leaders should sit down and stay a while.

This is an opportunity for a business’s leaders to explore the impact their business can have through long-term, strategic change, not just one-time opportunistic tactics. This position, not just a one-day use of a particular hashtag, is where brands and their marketers can be part of the solution.

Andrea Fryrear is co-author of the ICAgile Certified Professional in Agile Marketing curriculum, author of two books on marketing agility, and an internationally sought-after speaker and trainer. She holds numerous Agile certifications, including Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner (A-CSPO), ICAgile Certified Instructor, Certified Professional in Agile Marketing (ICP-MKG), Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Agile Leader (CAL-1), Certified Scrum@Scale Practitioner, and Certified Professional in Agile Coaching (ICP-ACC). When not on a plane or at a keyboard, she can be found in the mountains of her adopted home in Boulder, Colorado.

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