Facebook ad boycotts, alignment with #BlackLivesMatter, ditching names like Aunt Jemima: social activism is the latest must-have for brands.
But should you jump on the bandwagon? And how do you make the shift without getting labeled as inauthentic, especially if your brand has never talked about these issues before?
Now is the time to speak up, but brand activism is a significant strategic shift, not just a one-time change in temporary tactics. You need to address and master that realignment so you’re not just fast to fail in this emerging space.
Even more importantly, by doing brand activism right, we as marketers have a chance at helping achieve lasting change from these times of upheaval.
Agile ways of working have long recognized that we often exert the majority of our planning energies at the moment of maximum ignorance. We create perfect strategy documents that assume nothing will change for months, or even years, as we go about our business and get work done.
That’s almost never true in the world of marketing, but it’s even less true than usual in 2020.
Fortunately the agile mindset, and the frameworks that help us put it into practice, offer an alternative way towards meaningful brand activism that allows us to make a lasting connection with the causes that resonate with both our brands and our customers.
Agile Marketers Still Need a Strategy
I once read an article purporting to be about agile marketing that wondered, “Can you plan to be agile? Isn’t that cheating?” There’s a strangely persistent myth that being agile means you react to what’s going on around you in real time, irrespective of any plan or strategy.
That’s not only inaccurate, it’s a terrible idea for marketers who are expected to be stewards of brand health over the long term.
The bottom line is that strategy matters even when you’re responding to sudden change.
When it comes to brand activism, the most important first step is to know — really know — your brand. Then, as cultural moments emerge, investigate how the two align.
If there’s a meaningful reason for your brand to join that conversation, it’s time to determine what the acceptable variances are from your existing messaging. How much can you change without totally sacrificing work already in progressing (more on this in the next section)?
Once you’re comfortable with the degree of change, respond as close to real time as possible. Embrace the idea of a minimum viable campaign — the smallest amount of work that could still achieve your goals — and get it in front of your audience. Then expand and iterate over time.
Balance Agility and Stability
As you debate the desirable degree of change, remember that work left undone is a form of waste. There’s high value in finishing what you’ve started before jumping to something entirely new.
When possible, complete your current work before pivoting everything to a brand activism campaign. Look for ways to make slight, incremental adjustments to your marketing plans, rather than diving in to take on every imaginable new initiative right away.
Strong organizational values should ideally already underpin much of your marketing work, which means there should be clear intersections between cultural movements that you need to participate in and your current marketing activities.
Rapid response times matter, but we won’t help our brands in the long term if our marketing strategy becomes nothing but a series of pivots.
Learn, Iterate, and Improve
If you begin from your core organizational values and go to market with a minimum viable campaign, you can rely on a feedback loop with your customers and audience to hone your messaging over time.
As you start to feed out new messaging, gauge reactions and outcomes. See what’s working and what’s not. Get better as you go.
This kind of continual iteration can be enormously powerful, but it only works if we begin from the minimum viable starting point. When we draft a complete, fully formed campaign and put it all out simultaneously (an approach known in the agile world as “Big Bang”), we have too much invested to easily adjust.
Once a cake is fully baked, we can’t add more sugar or less baking powder.
But if we deliver a cupcake — still tasty and enjoyable, but smaller — we have the opportunity to tweak the recipe so each new offering is a little better.
Commit for the Long Term
Lastly, don’t think of brand activism as something to adopt for a quarter and then abandon. If social justice really matters to your organization and needs to be reflected in your brand perception, the shift to brand activism must be permanent and ongoing.
Make it a real commitment, then take the time to consider what this holistic adjustment will mean for the way you go to market.
Will it mean abandoning certain advertising channels permanently? Are there aspects of your messaging that could use updating? How can you support education and lasting change with the platform available to your brand?
Be thoughtful and genuine, taking time to consider carefully and listen openly to the reactions you receive. Too often we stop thinking and acting like real people when we have our marketer hats on, but the same respectful intentionality that we should exhibit as individuals should inform our brand marketing efforts.
Find a Meaningful Intersection and Iterate Toward It
If you haven’t already, take the time to really consider your organizational and brand values, and how they fit with the current social justice movements.
Look for an authentic intersection, and begin a steady, iterative march toward it. Deliver valuable marketing collateral as often as possible, then listen to feedback and adjust as needed.
Once you arrive at the intersection between your brand and activism, sit down and stay a while.
Explore the impact you 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.