Blog 21.11.18

Brands as activists: If not them, then who?

When Iceland’s Rang-tan advert campaigning against palm oil was banned from TV for being “too political”, it made me think: what is the role of brands as activists?

Rang-tan is the emotional story of an orangutan in a little girl’s bedroom. It is there because there are humans demolishing Rang-tan’s forest to make way for palm oil plantations. Iceland – the UK supermarket – bought it from Greenpeace, added its own logo and planned to use it as its Christmas campaign. But it was banned.

No monkeying around. This is serious – a business went out of its way to make a huge public commitment, and no doubt invest a lot of money, in bringing this issue to the public. ClearCast, the agency that vets adverts for UK TV screens, found the advert failed to pass rules as “It is inserted by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature.” The organisation it’s referring to is not, of course, our beloved supplier of 60 frozen spring rolls for a fiver. It’s Greenpeace.

Thankfully, the proliferation of social media and YouTube means that today’s banned ads have potential to be even more popular than those on TV. And Rang-tan has amassed over 5 million YouTube views in just over a week.

The censoring was not about the content, but the association with Greenpeace – a fact largely misunderstood.

However, it did raise an important question: what’s the role of businesses as activists for change?

Iceland is just the latest in a growing number of brands standing out on important topics, helping to define their own brands and build their following, while using their voice and influence for social and environmental good. However, it is perhaps not what you’d expect from a low-cost supermarket that would traditionally focus solely on price (and possibly using more palm oil). This is a sign of the times – as consumers become more aware of environmental issues, and price is no longer the only consideration. The meaning of the brand must change with this too. To be desirable, the brand must have meaning.

Some, such as Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, have been activists from the start – and maybe not coincidentally, both have founders with strong personalities.

Ben & Jerry’s, the Unilever-owned purveyor of chunky ice cream, has campaigned on everything from climate action to refugees. Today, its UK campaign – Waiting isn’t working – aims to change the law on the right of asylum seekers to work while they’re seeking asylum. It’s partnered with Refugee Action as part of the Lift the Ban coalition, using its campaigning clout to raise awareness of the issue among its engaged consumers.


For Ben & Jerry’s, campaigning is core to the brand identity. It’s the alternative, high-end ice cream with a strong social conscience. And that differentiates it from the rest of the crowded market.

But for Patagonia, which refers to itself as “the activist company”, it’s slightly different. It markets high-end outdoor clothing to outdoor enthusiasts. Over time, it’s developed a huge community of followers, treating the Patagonia brand with cult-like status. And it recognises the opportunity this brings. The average Patagonia customer enjoys the outdoors, and is passionate about the environment. Patagonia uses its voice to speak out for these people, and in that way – by buying a jacket you’re supporting the cause.

After 40 years of campaigns, with many still running, it’s going beyond direct action to enable more of its customers to get involved. Action Works connects customers with grassroots organisations near them to offer expertise, time, funding, or support. Founder, Yvon Chouinard, describes it as a dating site. This goes beyond a publicity stunt, to growing the community of environmentalist activists, customers and fans around the world.

Environmental activism is central to the positioning of the brand, and though politically controversial, to its target market it is an obvious direction. Sometimes it’s not so clear cut.


In September this year, Nike’s campaign with former NFL star Colin Kaepernick hit the headlines.

Kaepernick had been ousted from the NFL and lambasted by Trump for kneeling during the national anthem following multiple shootings across the country and a lack of action by the government.

He became an activist – using his voice to speak for others:

“This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”[1]

According to reports from insiders at Nike, the brand was close to dropping Kaepernick from its roster but made a last minute U-turn, instead pushing him to the front of their campaign.[2]

The question was whether it would be good for the brand or not – would its target market agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s stance? And the campaign was divisive – some loved it, while at the same time “#JustBurnIt” began to trend on Twitter, as people burned their Nike attire in disagreement with the company’s support of Kaepernick.

In the end, Nike won out. Its stock closed at an all-time high, it got 170,000 new followers on Instagram (mostly Millennial and Gen Z males),[3] and the related video has almost 27 million views less than three months after being posted.


What can we learn?

Brands carry huge responsibility. Nike, for example, has young followers looking to it both to see what the next trend is and to ensure that it speaks for them. By wearing Nike, they’re making a statement about what they believe in. The same is true of Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia, and perhaps also the supermarkets we shop at, like Iceland.

They have massive opportunity. Not only to use their marketing clout and brand following to stand up on important issues, but to strengthen their brand and ensure that it stands for something. Brands are all about representing something desirable, a way of life, an opinion, or a cause. Without this they are worth nothing more than a tick on a t-shirt.

This is what makes Iceland’s position as an activist so interesting, in a market traditionally dominated by price wars. Whether it’s about getting an edge in the UK’s extremely competitive retail market, or a genuine mission to improve the environment, its action is recognition of rising public awareness and concern over what they’re consuming, and which brands they associate themselves with.

Still, such strong stances remain the exception. The photographer of the viral Kaepernick image, Martin Schoeller, said: “I was a little in disbelief that they [Nike] were actually doing it. Corporations making a political statement is the opposite of what you usually want in marketing.[4]

Today, when public opinion is so often split, and people are demanding change, shouldn’t it become the norm?




← Back to Fresh Thinking
Nicole Clucas



Tweet this post
Share this post
Share this post
#ICYMI - Check out the latest @Context_Group blog on the intersection of #privacy, #technology, &…
@Context_Group – 2 days ago

We’re a company
with global reach

Want to work with us? Click here to
see our latest job opportunities


55 Greek Street,

View on map
Tel: +447768 76 22 69
Email: Peter Knight
Los Angeles

1601 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA 90028

View on map
Email: Simon Propper
Email: Lisa Campbell

Want to work with us? Click here to see our latest job opportunities