Open Your Purse: The New Bare Minimum of Brand Activism

Over the last decade, brands have increasingly chosen to publicly stand in support of social issues. But are their actions meaningful, or merely empty marketing tactics? The Moon Unit takes a look at brand activism during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and how consumer pressure is raising the bar for brands that say they care.


In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent wave of global protests, brands were quick to take a stance and offer their condolences and financial support. Corporate Twitter was awash for days with sombre black and white images posted in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. News of sizable donations from multi-national brands became a daily headline. Marketing as usual is again out the window.

On one hand, political investment from brands has never been higher, but on the other critics argue that it isn’t enough. Is it fair to have expectations of brands in times of social unrest – and if so, just how steep should those expectations be?

Brand activism is still a relatively new phenomenon. The idea that brands should take a stance on socio-political issues was uncommon as little as 10 years ago, and before that mostly unheard of. Historically, brands shied away from overt messaging on topics not directly relevant for fear of polarising their customer bases and losing sales. That’s not to say brand advertising was never political, rather that brand involvement in such issues was previously never expected by the public. 

Of course that all changed with the rise of social media. What started as a new method of communicating updates directly with consumers took a turn over the decade towards social awareness. When brands began creating social media accounts, they also started to adopt human characteristics: modes of speaking, types of humour, and even opinions. This was partly out of necessity. To fit in on the internet without appearing like a stereotypical faceless corporation required brands to play it smart or face getting cancelled. It was also because of new marketing strategies aimed at capturing the youth markets.

The choice to target younger generations through social media implicitly required brands to publicly care about social issues. This is because the decisive factor in the purchasing habits of Millennials and Gen Z is whether they perceive brands to be morally upstanding or not, so long-term brand image building generally turns more successful for brands that cultivated a humane public presence. A side-effect of this is that brand-consumer communication has evolved into a two-way relationship: brands have large platforms and significant influence on their consumers, but consumer pressure through direct social channels mediates the public reactions of brands.

This is how we got to the strange world of today, where corporate Twitter accounts are some of the most prolific social commentators on the internet. They inhabit a virtual environment where projecting ‘wokeness’ is seen as an esteemed characteristic or even a social currency in and of itself. Certain brands, Wendy’s for instance, are notorious for having built their brand image by creating costless, shareable content in the form of witty Twitter posts, a marketing strategy that has proved so effective that it has become the gold standard for social media marketers and spawned countless imitators. It’s even the case that brand social media accounts – and let’s not forget at this point that brand activism is by definition a marketing strategy – are more progressive than many of the world’s governments.

Given that background, it’s easy to see how the shockwave of George Floyd’s murder and the reinvigoration of the BLM movement forced brands to speak up. The succeeding slew of solidarity posts was unprecedented – to stay silent on the matter was to be seen as being complicit in the systemic failures that led to the re-eruption of the conversation about systemic inequality and police brutality in the USA and the wider world. Within a week, most brands you know – and many you don’t – had joined the bandwagon by halting scheduled campaigns and offering their support for the movement.

The thing about brand activism is that it is more often than not reactionary. It’s a function of a strategy of which the imperative is to please shareholders than create actual social change. That means that brands generally wait to see which way the wind is blowing before taking a concrete position on anything. It’s in part due to PR departments wanting to avoid crisis by playing it safe and keeping an eye on both the movements of competitors and the values of consumers before making any public statements. It’s also a fault of the convoluted chain of approval in corporate structures. These processes together result in watered down statements of solidarity, which, while from a PR standpoint are safe, can come across to consumers as ultimately meaningless marketing stunts.

So while it was inspirational to many to see brands using their platforms to speak out in solidarity, the posts met their fair share of criticism. Twitter and Facebook became so saturated by these posts this cookie-cutter satirical image began popping up in response.

Image credit: Chris Franklin @Campster

The picture pointed out what many found to be the issue with the sudden onslaught of brand activism, namely that the posts were hollow and thinly-veiled attempts at capitalising on a terrible situation while avoiding instigating any real change. Twitter users picked up on this and began bluntly asking brands to put their money where their mouth is by commenting the words ‘open your purse’ underneath corporate solidarity posts.

And it worked. Donations rolled in as fast as the preceding support messages. Brands from Amazon to Zumba opened their collective purses and put their money where their mouths are. They were still, however, faced with criticism. And it wasn’t to do with the size of the donations – though Amazon’s $10M donation was incidentally, as a percentage of their net worth, relative to the median American net worth roughly $6. Brands donating money to social causes can be seen as analogous to a person giving spare change to homeless people on the street; it helps, yes, but it’s a band-aid fix. The real issue, as some critics see it, is that brand business practices do not reflect their statements, and beyond that donations have become the new standard of doing the bare minimum as far as consumers are concerned.

So is it fair to have expectations of brands beyond donating money and tweeting condolences? It’s fair to say yes – if they choose to collectively express human traits such as having empathy and a stance on political issues, then they should, just like any other human would be expected to, reflect on their internal biases and grow with the times. It’s deceitful for brands to get marketing mileage by supporting social issues without also working to change their actions to reflect those words. Moreover, brands have an implicit profit motive that humans don’t, and so while it might seem ok to write off a person’s failure to walk-the-walk on the grounds of cognitive dissonance, the argument doesn’t hold up for corporate structures.

Throwing money at an issue is a start, but does not address the underlying problem. To make another example of Amazon, – low-hanging fruit, as far as corporate ethics are concerned – on top of the notoriously poor working conditions that their employees face (many of whom are minorities), Amazon also is a regular sponsor of police foundations in the US and sells them facial recognition technology. Beyond being complicit, Amazon are actively fuelling the fire. A $10 million donation and a Twitter post do not absolve them of this.

But it’s not only Amazon. And it’s not only the ‘big bad’ tech giants, either. Even Nike, who have been about as radical as a corporation of its size can be, have a leadership team composed entirely of white people. The same is true for most brands that have chirped up lately. It’s a longstanding issue that corporate America is not diverse enough. In 2018, just 3.3% of executive and senior roles were held by black professionals. Less than 1% of Fortune-500 CEOs are black. But this isn’t a call for forced diversity, rather a glimpse at a system which, in its current state, doesn’t allow for equal opportunities for Black people and other minorities. The lack of diversity is simply symptomatic of this.

It’s also not going to be an article where we sit around and point fingers at brands for not doing enough. There are brands who are proving that it’s possible to make constructive and thoughtful change. There are strategies to alter business practices in ways more valuable than any donation can be. A brilliant article by La’Nita Johnson outlines three things to look for in a company’s solidarity statement to ascertain if it’s meaningful: authenticity, accountability, and actionable items. She uses these three categories to make examples of companies that have proven that their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is more than a marketing or PR strategy by acknowledging the issue, reflecting on how it affects the company from within, and paving a way forward with concrete action.

Johnson’s examples prove not only how to distinguish disingenuous marketing from effective support, but also that if it is possible for some brands to meaningfully support a cause they purport to, then there is no excuse for those that don’t. It also highlights that strategies to enact change will inevitably vary from company to company based on their resources, the type of business they conduct, and their willingness to put effort towards acting in line with their words of support.

All brands have, in their own way, a capacity to make change. Standing in solidarity with a social cause as a PR move morally necessitates reflection and progress, else it is an empty or even malicious gesture. But the changing relationship between consumers and brands is beginning to hold brands accountable for hollow statements and shifty practices. The recent wave of donations is evidence of this. The new bare minimum is shifting­ – 5 years ago it was open your mouths; now it’s open your purses. What could it be in the next 5?

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