Consumers are wise to ‘wash their eyes’ – but a true ‘transformative branding’ can always make a difference


As brands increasingly engage in social change campaigns and leverage their influence to be ‘goal driven’, now is the time to ask some big questions: is this a viable strategy, and to what extent should we be skeptical of the so-called “brand activism”?

In the last few weeks alone, Ben & Jerry’s threw a new flavor of ice cream called ‘Change is Brewing’ to support black-owned businesses and raise awareness of Popular Response Law, bill to establish a new public safety agency in the United States.

Lego declared he would promote inclusive play and fight harmful gender stereotypes with his toys. Mars food renamed Uncle Ben’s Rice at Ben’s Original in response to criticism of racial cartoons in its marketing.

At the same time, companies have a checkered history when it comes to tackling societal issues, ranging from selfish “ticking boxes” business practices under the guise of social responsibility shift responsibility to consumers make ethical choices (like reusable coffee cups).

More recently, “woke washing” has seen brands promote social issues without taking meaningful action. To consider fast fashion brands that promote International Women’s Day while profiting from the exploitation of female workers.

Lego is committed to tackling gender stereotypes in its toys.

Change from the inside

How then can brands legitimately assume the responsibility of supporting or promoting societal transformation?

Our research introduces the idea of ​​“transformative branding”. It involves companies working with customers, communities, and even competitors to co-create brands that lead both in the marketplace and on the social fronts.

Read more: Woke wash: what happens when marketing communications don’t align with company practices?

Transformative branding can be achieved by for-profit, non-profit, and social enterprise organizations. The common factor is balancing business and societal goals to create change from the market system.

Concepts of marketing with a social benefit have proliferated over the past 50 years, but finding real solutions has been less successful. We ask how companies can take action to make a real contribution to society and show how a transformative branding can help brands take on this responsibility.

The Patagonia clothing brand’s “used clothing” program promotes recycling over new purchases.

Beyond making money

Transformative branding operates through two main market-shaping elements: leadership and collaborative coupling. These allow companies to partner with stakeholders to change their business landscape.

First, leadership involves building a vision for transformation. It forces leaders to think flexibly and creatively, to work on long-term horizons, and to stay tuned in to changing ideologies. It basically involves re-imagining what branding can do – beyond making money.

Read more: Athlete activism or entrepreneurship washout? Getting it right in the age of Black Lives Matter is a tough game

Second, collaborative coupling consists of implementing this vision through the different dimensions of the brand. The key to this is to engage stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, suppliers, governments, communities and competitors.

When the brand and its stakeholders collectively build on the transformation objective, they mark commitment, distribute know-how and resources and establish legitimacy.

Leadership and collaborative coupling work together to change the business environment. Our research shows that this has ripple effects, creating opportunities for transforming economic, regulatory, socio-cultural and political environments.

The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand incorporates social responsibility and activism into its corporate philosophy.

Transformative branding in practice

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is a good example of transformative branding at work, especially in frankly admitting that the notion of a fully sustainable business is “impossible”. Instead, Patagonia has reframed its priorities around responsibility, with Chouinard reimagining the brand as a solution to environmental degradation.

This vision is at the heart of the brand’s iconic “demarketing” campaign, “Do not buy this jacket”, Which aims to shift the ideology of consumption from purchase to repair.

Read more: Brand activism moves up the supply chain – corporate responsibility or commercial censorship?

More recently, “Patagonia”Buy less, demand more“campaign and its”Worn Wear”For second-hand clothing introduced the notion of circular economy into the company’s strategy to promote a culture of reuse rather than always buying new.

Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely demonstrates collaborative coupling in its campaign clean up production and supply chain practices in the chocolate manufacturing industry and eliminate illegal child labor and modern slavery.

Of the society “open chain platform”Helps all industry players, including competitors, foster fair and transparent supply chains and secure a vital income for cocoa farmers. The brand is actively eroding its own potential competitive advantage in the process.

Remain skeptical

But the transformative brand image is complex and dynamic, and authenticity is paramount. For example, earlier this year, Tony has been removed of the monitoring organization Chocolate without slaveThe list of ethical producers on its partnership with a major chocolate producer is being sued for allegedly using slave labor.

Tony’s responded by saying it was important to educate and inspire business partners and competitors to adopt ethical principles and practices.

This complex and often slow process of negotiating what it means to be ethical is part of a transformative branding. It adapts to the different goals and values ​​of many stakeholders.

And while transformative branding offers a path to a more sustainable and fairer future, we must continue to take a hard look at brands that claim to be a force for good, challenge them and empower them where necessary.


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