Brands Rise to Raise the Bar

As we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Engage for Good (formerly Cause Marketing Forum) Conference, it is clear that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) looks very different than it did in the turn of the Millennium.

Today, many companies and brands have moved from static responsibility to enlightened and engaged action. It’s a strategic shift I have been championing, helping companies and brands move from a marketing or corporate driven purpose model into a model driven by values.

While good work has been achieved with genuine CSR over the last 15 years, for the most part brands have avoided taking a direct sociopolitical position and therefore may have lacked some bite in the past. Today, consumers are increasingly responding positively to brands that take a stand on something meaningful.

I had the pleasure of exploring this topic at the conference on a panel I moderated titled The Power of Brand Activism with Sue Burton, SVP, Enterprise Brand Strategy and Programs at Bank of America, Jayme Jenkins, VP, Marketing & Corporate Responsibility at The Body Shop Canada, and Laura Swapp, Director of Next Gen Marketing at REI.

A recent report shows we are on pace for one school shooting per week in the U.S. in 2018. This is unacceptable and was the reason I kicked off the discussion with this topic.

At Bank of America, Sue took us inside the decision process at the company to stop lending money to gun manufacturers that make military-inspired firearms for civilian use, such as the AR-15-style rifles that have been used in multiple mass shootings. Not surprisingly, this decision took some time as the company evaluated the risks and rewards. 50% of American households bank with the company and their consumer base is on both sides of the issue.

REI, the specialty retailer that sells backpacks, kayaks and other outdoorsy merchandise, also threw itself into the center of the gun debate. Laura talked about how the company, which does not sell guns, made the decision to no longer buy bike helmets and water bottles from a key supplier because it also makes assault-style rifles. REI ultimately took a stand calling for companies that manufacture and sell guns and ammunition to work toward common sense solutions.

The Body Shop had no reason to be in the gun debate, but the company with activism in its DNA, even often encouraging its own employees to personally take a stand, isn’t shy about speaking out. Jayme talked about the company’s ongoing “Forever Against Animal Testing” campaign. The company is attempting to amass more than eight million signatures on a petition calling for a global ban on animal testing. Jayme said the stance is well-aligned with The Body Shop’s historic roots around ethically-sourced products.

Brand activism is not a new revolution, rather it’s a recently rapid evolution due to the ubiquity of activism on social media and the pressing objective for brands to stay relevant today to an ever-more conscious universe of millennial consumers.