Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Joi Sears headshot

Companies As Activists: Brands Take A Stand For Justice

By Joi Sears

Most brands claim to have some form of social mission, but few act on it. Today’s winning brands are not only starting contentious, uncomfortable and socially-relevant conversations about the issues that matter, but they’re also getting off their buns and actually doing something about them.

Huge corporate giants that value profit over the environment and human lives are a thing of the past. These businesses have no place in the economy of the future. In fact, 73 percent of millennials believe that businesses should not only take a stand about important issues, but also influence others to get involved in those issues.

We want the companies we love to not only give a crap about the world, but also to advocate for us and take a stand on the issues that matter the most. It's good for the planet and the people on it, and it’s super good for profits. To be competitive in the market of tomorrow, you have to be a company that cares.

Companies as policymakers

There are brands that truly care about the people they serve and the markets they operate in, and there are those that just say they do. Smart, forward-thinking brands are not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. They understand that the true bottom line is not just people, planet and profit but policy as well.

The American Sustainable Business Council is the leading business advocacy group working to implement public policies that build a sustainable economy. It advocates for legislation and other policy actions, commissions research on policy issues that involve sustainability, and provides a platform that enables policymakers to engage with business professionals.

“A lot of people come into business thinking that they need to leave their activism at home and that advocacy doesn’t have a place in business,” Bob Keener of the ASBC told TriplePundit. “Many people think they have to leave their politics at the door, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.” It is becoming increasingly important for brands to take a stand on political issues and ensure these issues are reflected through the policies they support.

“More and more companies are finding it essential for their business to engage in policy advocacy,” said David Brodwin, co-founder and vice president of media and communications for ASBC. “Today employees, customers and investors expect to see a company walking the talk. And not just internally, but also in their public policy stances. ASBC helps businesses easily translate their values into public policy engagement.”

Companies as feminists

Today’s consumers are increasingly looking to brands to expose gender inequality and empower women. Despite the basic principle that women and men should be paid the same wages for the same work, a gender-based wage gap still persists.

More than 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was signed, women who work full-time, year-round still earn 79 cents for every dollar paid to men. For women of color, the gap is even worse – 60 cents for African American women and 55 cents for Latinas.

MTV decided to address this issue head on. In April 2016, the global brand created the 79 Percent Work Clock, a tool which lets users calculate when 79 percent of their working day is over -- reminding them (and others around them) that they’re no longer being paid for their work.

The project is a component of MTV’s Look Different Campaign which is meant to draw attention to the issue of bias in our world, whether that be racial bias, gender bias or anti-LGBT bias. It invites people to go deeper into these issues and collectively take action against them.

“When we moved into the gender bias phase of Look Different, we knew we wanted to educate our audience on some key issues that are often misunderstood or simply unknown to many in our audience,” Ronnie Cho, MTV’s vice president of public affairs, told TriplePundit.

“The gender pay gap was one of these issues, and we worked closely with an agency called Party to create a provocative way to start a conversation around the 79 percent pay gap. We manufactured several hundred of these clocks and sent them to leaders in business, media, politics and sports.”

Companies as advocates

MTV’s Look Different Campaign is a great example of how a company can leverage its reach to advocate for certain issues. “From the very beginning MTV has always worked to bring light to the most pressing issues of the time,” Cho explained.

“From HIV/AIDS education in the '80s to spotlighting the crisis in Darfur in 2000s, MTV has always led with its heart not only because it was the right thing to do, but because our audience has come to expect it. Simply put, giving a damn about the world around us is baked into our DNA, and I’m proud to be part of continuing that legacy today.”

“When MTV set out to launch its next prosocial campaign, we asked our audience about what issues concerned them the most. Racial, gender and anti-LGBT based bias and discrimination kept coming up, and many felt ill-equipped to challenge them. The same year Look Different was launched, America was once again confronted with the issue of race in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and in the killings of several unarmed black people across the country.”

“The events angered, saddened and confused our audience as to why this was happening in America in this day and age. While many have been brought up with good intentions to be color blind, it’s clear that ignoring our differences was not making America more tolerant or accepting of one another. Look Different was designed to help our audience have those tough conversations to identify hidden biases that surround us, including our own, and to challenge them.”

Companies as mediators

Smart brands see tough times as an opportunity to step up. Reconciliation Brands are brands that bring people together to heal divisions. These companies are doing their part to promote dialogue, mend wounds and reconcile issues between the populations they serve.

A great example of this comes from Ben & Jerry’s. With Brazil deep in crisis around the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and economic, political and social challenges taking their toll, the popular ice cream brand invited people to its São Paolo store for a political debate.

The idea was to bring people who love one another together, face-to-face, to discuss contentious issues they could not agree on, over ice cream. The campaign was featured on social media using the hashtag #amoréprogresso  —  meaning 'disagree with love.' This is just one way that brands around the world are working to mend the social fabric and be an active force for change.

Companies as champions of diversity

True sustainability cannot be reached without everyone included. "More and more companies are learning that diversity and inclusion helps businesses attract and retain top talent, especially millennials,” Pat Heffernan, CEO of Marketing Partners, told TriplePundit.

“Companies that have a better reputation for being inclusive also make more money,” added MaryAnne Howland, CEO of Ibis Communications and ASBC board member. “These companies are more innovative because they have a broader spectrum of ideas that are being brought to the table. They also have a smarter workforce. When you throw a wider net, the bar is higher. Diversity also yields a wider corporate network with more depth and richness in terms of languages, cultures and experiences.”

And diversity doesn’t just mean women and people of color, but also chronically underserved populations like people with disabilities and the elderly. “People with disabilities are an untapped market and no one is reaching out to them,” Howland told TriplePundit.

An estimated 1.3 billion people have some form of disability, making the differently-abled an emerging market the size of China. Together, they control over $8 trillion in annual disposable income globally. “Not only do they have money, but they have incredible ideas and unique perspectives,” Howland added. “It’s all about recognizing human value. Everyone needs to be treated with dignity and respect. Once we get there we’ll solve all the problems.”

Companies as activists

Everyone wants to be branded as a company that gets it. But it’s not enough to say it, you have to actually be doing something about it. Today’s companies need to be activists, feminists, policy makers, champions of diversity and mediators. They don’t ignore the issues that are plaguing the communities they serve. Instead, they see these issues as opportunities for social innovation.

Image credits: Shannon McGee and Robert Marschelewski via Flickr

Joi Sears headshot

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

Read more stories by Joi Sears