Helen Job: “Activism is trying to change mindsets–it is not a campaign”

Brand activism is on the rise. Companies which don’t participate will eventually fall short, says Helen Job. In an interview before her presentation at GDI’s 16th European Trend Day, Job talks about this new form of activism and its impact on consumers and market.

Helen Job

GDI: You recently published a report on brand activism. What is an “activist brand”?

Helen Job: Some brands are created as activists, it is in the brand DNA--while they still produce products for profit, there is a larger social/political/environmental mission.

Take TOM’s, created as a result of the founder’s experience with poverty among children in Argentina: the company business model is to match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need (they have since moved into eyewear etc with a similar One for One™ model). Or Patagonia, which actually calls itself, “The Activist Company,” and states, “the protection and preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours. It’s the reason we’re in business and every day’s work,”.

How do you build such a brand?

However, any brand can behave as an activist and take action for positive change by examining who they are as a brand, why they exist, and where they have the ability to make genuine impact or be a force for good. 

Brand activism is when a company seeks to have impact on a social, economic, environmental, or political problem. Activism is trying to change mindsets and affect social or policy change--it is not a campaign. The bad news is, that for all the encouraging examples we are seeing there is still the feeling among informed audiences that while some brands are stepping up, many are still falling short. According to 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, “Fifty-three percent of consumers expect brands to get involved in at least one social issue that is not directly related to their business, though companies are often perceived as falling short”. 

Why is this important just now?

The world is in trouble. We live in an  era of ecological collapse and technological disruption. Climate crisis is a ticking time bomb. Artificial intelligence is simultaneously  threatening and liberating our species. Beyond this, we have divisive politics and rising inequality. Discrimination based on gender, class and race. Uncertainty is the only constant.

With trust in traditional institutions (press, politicians) waning, the responsibility sits firmly with brands (I’m not, by any means, excusing the politicians). Expectations of brands have shifted beyond recognition. People trust brands. Trust is power. With great power comes 
great responsibility. Brands are able to communicate, engage and ultimately share platforms and build messages alongside the people who love them. They have the audiences, the fans – the citizens – who they can reach out to on a regular basis. Why not use that for the greater good?

Also, for too long, brands have passed the responsibility for change onto their consumers. It is time to truly extend producer responsibility--if they are causing the problem (social, environmental, or otherwise) it is their responsibility to address it. 

A Brand Purpose study by Accenture showed 42% of consumers walk away from a brand if they are disappointed by its actions. One in five never come back, proving that not taking action is far riskier to brand health than taking a stand.

How to balance economic performance and social good?

The most pressing question for many brands is: does activism work? Does it benefit our bottom line, as well as people and the planet? And perhaps this is where the biggest change is needed--if you are still asking that question, you are missing the point. One of the biggest mistakes brands are making is in conflating activism with traditional brand outcomes and measurements. 

Measurement is about impact and positive change. There also needs to be a Mindshift away from instant gratification. We need to accept real change may require more effort than what can be achieved through a single campaign.

What about critics who feel “purpose” is simply another marketing gimmick?

We have reached “peak-purpose”, with every marketer trying to figure out how to matter in a crowded landscape, but informed audiences can recognise green or woke washing. They can tell when a brand’s “activism” is just a calculated marketing scheme. 

Brands need to invest in long-term commitments, not a one-time project or monetary donation. This means two-way communication with consumers about partnerships, and transparency with funds and resources. But most of all, it means longevity.

If a brand genuinely wants to engage with a social issue and create change, it must address
the issue head-on (regardless of potential social, corporate and political backlash), hold consumers (and themselves) accountable, and suggest actionable solutions.

Behaviour change is hard. There’s a need for inventive means to enact change.

Who is doing a good job right now – and who is not?

Examples of companies doing a poor job 

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe says consumers have been gripped by an “era of fast fashion” that has led to an “environmental and social emergency.” The clothing industry is responsible for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined, according to the UN.

But H&M and Zara seem to be making things worse

H&M has made multiple wrong moves, from issues around racism and cultural appropriation to the fact that their CEO recently spoke out against conscious consumers saying they were bad for fast fashion.

Zara’s gender-neutral line missed the mark – the 10-piece offering consisted of plain basics that were arguably already genderless by style. It begs questioning whether this line furthers the intention of the movement or whether calling an unimaginative fashion line "ungendered" is little more than a marketing play. Similarly, they announced all of theircollections will be made from 100% sustainable fabrics before 2025. 

What neither of these fast fashion retailers are addressing is the need to reduce production and consumption radically.

Examples of companies doing a good job 

Google X Stella McCartney
Google has its fair share of issues, but teams are building a tool that uses data analytics 
and machine learning on Google Cloud to analyse information about Stella McCartney’s 
own supply chains. The end goal is to create a supply chain tool to give companies greater clarity about their production process and impact on a local level against metrics such 
as water pollution, emissions, and soil health.

IKEA Lagom 
Lagom offers ideas and tips for consumers to upcycle things they already own. From re-using its plastic bags as picnic blankets to repurposing old tins to hold kitchen utensils, the IKEA collection provides inspiration for living more sustainably at no extra cost. 

Patagonia Action Works
A digital platform by Patagonia informs people of local activism opportunities in the categories of land, water, climate, communities and biodiversity. The platform connects users to local organisations engaged in topics they’re passionate about.  The platform officially launched in Europe on 25 September 2019.


Helen Job is a speaker at the 16th European Trend Day of the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, which takes place on 11 March 2020.