How to Be a Brand Activist When You Hate Politics

Everything is political these days – even football and pizza.

President Donald Trump ignited months of controversy in September when he criticized NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.

The “take a knee” debate spilled over into the pizza industry. Recently, Papa John’s CEO, John Schnatter, criticized NFL executives for not forcing players to stand during the national anthem, and for angering fans who then canceled NFL TV bundles and burned merchandise in counter-protests.

Schnatter blamed football executives’ “lack of leadership” for his company’s flagging sales. Greg Creed, CEO of Pizza Hut’s parent company Yum Brands, was dragged into the fray during an earnings call when an analyst asked whether the controversy affected his company’s sales. Creed said it did not.

An ensuing battle raged on social media with each pizza company becoming yet another symbol of the country’s deep political and racial divide.

The conflict isn’t limited to pizza politics. Advertisers and the companies they represent said at an industry event in October that they are grappling with mounting pressure to advocate social issues and serve as a moral compass during uncertain and politically contentious times.

“People don’t trust government and authorities,” said Debra Bass, president of global marketing services at Johnson & Johnson Consumer, at the Advertising Week New York Event. “They’re looking for companies to take courageous stands and really do more good in the world.”

Like many entrepreneurs and creative giants, you want to use the power of your brand to achieve social change. But how do you use your brand to make a social impact without sacrificing revenue? Where do you start? What are the risks and are they worth it? (Tweet this.)

Activism Is for Everybody

Before deciding, let’s understand activism by considering what it is and is not.

Myth #1 – Activism is marching and messaging. Most people think of activism as either putting their bodies on the line (such as in marching) or protesting in service of a cause, using messaging to advocate for or against an issue. Those activities count as activism, but there are a myriad of ways to spark and drive social change without taking to the streets.

Myth #2 – Activism is the same as volunteering. Activism is a series of strategies and tactics whose aim is to change public or institutional policy. Volunteering is an action that temporarily alleviates suffering. Collecting backpacks filled with school supplies at the start of the year and delivering them to a school in a low-income district is volunteering. Petitioning state lawmakers to increase funding for public schools to purchase and provide student supplies is activism.

Myth 3# – Individual and brand activism are the same. Tweeting your reactions to the latest sexual harassment revelations is not the same as working within your industry to improve the quality of mentorships for young women. You can be politically active as a person while still silent as a brand.

So, what is activism?

For individuals, activism is a sustained commitment to bringing your highest self in service of the challenges and opportunities of the beloved community.

For brands, activism is a sustained commitment to leveraging your resources and expertise to solve social problems facing the communities you serve.

Start Where You Are

You can be a brand activist with the resources and tools you have now. But whether you should do so requires evaluating your brand’s relationship to the following five factors.

Authenticity – Companies fail when they treat activism as a moment rather than a movement. (Tweet this.) Pepsi drew criticism in April because it released an advertisement that appropriated the visual language of the Black Lives Matter movement and transferred its political agency and potency to Kendall Jenner, a white celebrity and model. In determining whether activism is authentic to your brand’s promise, ask yourself and your team whether you are bowing to the pressures of the moment or want to stand in the call of a movement.

Heritage – It’s easier to become a brand activist if making a social impact is part of your brand heritage. If not, you can still be useful by focusing on issues instead of partisan politics and personalities. Issue-driven advocacy creates possibilities to build coalitions around communities of interest, surprising new partnerships, amplified audience reach, and retaining current customers.

Affinity – Choose a cause that is related to the products and services your company offers. Your expertise can make a direct social impact, and your business acumen is valued. Financial planners can teach financial literacy courses at public housing projects. Yoga instructors can teach mindfulness techniques to local police departments to help de-escalate police violence in minority neighborhoods.

Team Support – The support of your team is critical throughout the process of your brand activism. Your team can help vet an idea and serve as a gut check when staking a controversial position in your community or industry. They can also help you execute your specific brand activism at every level – from HR and operations to marketing and sales. Your team can also serve as your support system when times get hard, as they inevitably do when we seek social change.

Audience – The relationship your brand has with your audience is perhaps the most significant factor in whether you should engage. Brand activism can serve as a portal to deepen audience engagement and inspire them to new levels of possibility. But you also run the risk of alienating clients who don’t share your beliefs or wish to remain apolitical.

Discover Opportunity in Creative Tension

Brand activism carries many risks and uncertain rewards. We must decide to engage with our eyes open and our focus on the long-term gains. Nevertheless, even within this creative tension is a grand invitation to shape the future in ways we might never have imagined.

The United States will stand divided unless we rigorously test our assumptions and cherished collective beliefs about what it means to be an American, what shared rights and responsibilities we hold, and whether we, as a people, will honor the promises contained in our country’s most sacred, founding documents. Making such a commitment is true whether the United States or another country is our home.

Issue-driven advocacy refocuses our efforts away from partisan politics and personalities and toward common ground. The democratization of technology makes it easier for us to build coalitions around communities of interest, possibilities for surprising partnerships, and innovative solutions to complex social problems.

Politics may be inevitable, but meaningful social change through brand activism is not impossible.

I wrote this guest blog post , Productive Flourishing. Founded by Charlie Gilkey, Productive Flourishing is a community of people who’d rather roll up their sleeves and start doing something with their ideas and vision than merely sit and dream.