Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Katy Howell: Brand activism means living on the social knife edge

Katy Howell, CEO of social media agency  Immediate Future, is one of the most innovative and creative leaders in the digital industry and NDA’s monthly columnist.

Brand activism is on everyone’s radar right now. From sustainability to D&I, every boardroom is adding ESG to the agenda.

I get it. Companies want to tap into the zeitgeist. Have a purpose that resonates with younger audiences, employees and causes. Marketers flirt with forays into gender diverse food packaging, wrap #MeToo into their adverts, or have products lead mental health conversations.

While it’s easy to get swept up in discussions about your purpose, your right to advocate for a cause or political stance, or even your journey to being sustainable. There is a desperate need to focus deeply on how you should communicate.

Because it doesn’t stop at the idea or the purpose. You need to think much more about what you say, how you say it, and where you say it. Because that matters to your audiences. Marketers are walking a fine line, a knife edge between hitting the mark and blowing it all up.

And when it comes to sharing on social, you’ll find yourselves at the sharpest edge of the blade. It’s where you’ll face consumer activists, sceptical buyers and gleeful trolls. Too many purpose campaigns are ill-prepared for what will happen on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok etc.

Years ago, there was a magazine called Reputation Online. It was before social media had a name. When our web 2.0 world was about blogs, message boards, groups and marketing as a conversation. It was when the ideals and theories centred on ‘inside-outside’ brands. When trust and reputation where the core tenets of social media. Now of course social is complex and sophisticated. More tools and formats and ways to get our message out. It seems a focus on reputation is a little lost.

We need to bring it back and fast if we are to truly have impact with brand activism. That means stepping back before pushing those posts out. I think there are 5 areas to consider in more depth before publishing…

They will hunt you down

The mirror to brand activism is of course, consumer activism. Sure, there are keyboard warriors aplenty online. But you’ll underestimate your customers if you think they won’t catch you in a lie too.

Oatly is the latest in a lengthening line of brands who’ve been caught misleading the public. Ouch! It’s not just the embarrassment of being found out, it’s the long-term sour taste it leaves in the mouths of, often loyal, customers. You lose trust.

Take time to check the veracity of your claims. Oh, and don’t lie.

Tell me you have a plan

Corporate advocacy for causes is often led from the top. Led by big statements and above the line marketing. By the time it gets to social it becomes a broadcast campaign sliced into wee posts and tweets. A way to get the reach up and the message out.

The fatal flaw is in not having a plan for how it will be received and how you need to manage the responses. A detailed workflow of issues and responses will be needed, alongside an escalation process. I always think Sainsbury’s does a great job with clearly thoughtful and on message responses. Especially around its Black Lives campaigns.

It’s also worth ensuring the message has buy-in internally. There is nothing worse than your great cause being scuppered by an employee – it happens!

Finally, you’ll need to think about the activations and resource that will be needed should it get out of hand. Who will work evenings and weekend and how will the communications be agreed?

Tone is everything

Even the best of intentions can get scuppered if the tone is not in keeping with the moment. Don’t run a purpose-driven campaign without first listening to what your social audience is saying. Tone deaf communications, apparent virtue signalling, or accusations of woke-washing will ensue.

Work harder at the language you’ll use too. Clarity will be everything. So much can be misinterpreted in social that it is important to think carefully about words. That doesn’t mean you should tone it down though. Bold and attention grabbing is still the order of the day. It’s about being thoughtful first.

Oh, and one last thing, when it comes to reading the social room; don’t bang on and on. Frequency of posts is an important balance – too much do-gooding and you’ll bring out the cynic in your audience.

Deepen the story

Everyone can do better with frequency of message by widening and deepening the story. In fact, if you do that on social, use sequential storytelling and story groupings, you are also more likely to be believed. Nurture your message if you want to get it across.

Of course, it’s easy to reformat the TV ad or broadcast the message. Good stories that interweave around the message revealing human sides and science and creativity of thought – well they take time.

But the payoff is big if you want to change perception and be seen as a power for good.

Not all of the people

One thing you learn very fast in social is that you can’t please everyone. And some people delight in jeering from the side-lines. A recent campaign from a well-known tech brand

talked about the recycling of plastic waste from the sea to make new products. Out in social the story was well executed, brilliant creative with a fair and balanced tone.

But it still garnered a few derisive comments. Yes, most brands will be on a ESG journey. They won’t be B-Corp from day one or sustainable overnight. So explain the journey, reveal the roadmap. And ignore some of the negativity – you don’t have to respond to everything.

Ultimately, when you consider brand activism on social, it needs to walk hand in hand with reputation. That way you can prance across the knife edge without fear of cutting yourself!