I studied “brand activism” for over a year.

Here’s what I learned.

Rachel Benner
7 min readSep 12, 2018
So universally cringe-worthy.

“What are you writing your thesis about?”

I’m lucky. All I had to do to answer this question was say some combination of the words “Pepsi” and “Kendall Jenner,” then wait for the cringe.

“That,” I’d say, “is what I’m studying. I want to figure out a way to do that better.”

My thesis wasn’t groundbreaking lab research or a fresh take on a literary classic, but it did tackle something important: the intersection of corporate speech and cultural tension.

For eighteen months, I studied what happens when brands adopt the voice of activists — and what it might mean to do that better. I turned a half-baked term paper into a 100+ page work of research. And I’m excited to share what I learned.

“Brand activism” is when a brand integrates a social movement into its messaging or operations.

I focused on brand activism in advertising — my field of study — but the implications of this phenomenon are much larger than messaging alone. What does it mean for brands to do good, or be good? Why do they so often get it wrong? And why, ultimately, do we care?

My thesis began as a truly academic exploration of these questions. I pondered the gap between academia and corporate America and tried to bridge it. I talked to people at parties, cold-emailed strangers and thought far too much about the role of brands in our society.

…which, by the numbers, looks like this:

  • 3 research questions
  • 72 secondary sources read and analyzed
  • 4 contemporary case studies
  • 46 pages of original analysis
  • 13 IRB-approved, anonymous interviews with industry professionals across the country
  • 26 hours of transcription
  • 24,057 words
  • 1 defense to thesis committee

I did the thesis thing, watched the page count grow, and defended it before graduation. But ultimately, I saw a future for this project outside the quaint brick walls of my university campus.

As I dug through all this research, worked on building my own activist brand, and contemplated my fast-approaching career in brand strategy, I realized how important it was to translate the conclusions of my thesis into actionable steps.

This is only the beginning — but here’s what I learned:

First, look at brands in the bigger picture.

Zoom out of advertising and look at the company, not just its messages.

Encourage the brands you work with to make a commitment.

Brands should “be good,” not just “do good” with their messaging. If the activism your client is asking for doesn’t align with who they are, push back. Find a cause that makes sense for the brand to pursue, and resist clumsy cultural piggy-backing.

Support “activist brands” — they have the most authority to make a difference.

Brand-side solutions like transparent supply chains, pro-social operations practices, and disruptive product innovations mean more authentic activism across the board. The fact that these brands exist doesn’t mean that big consumer giants can’t take a stand, but these smaller, disruptive companies will have the most impact long-term.

Everyone brought up Patagonia. Everyone.

Second, build and leverage relationships.

Embrace the agency role as an outsider and fight for better decisions.

Emphasize the action behind the activism.

Nearly everyone I talked to emphasized the importance of brands putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to brand activist campaigns. Agencies should set an example and commit to infusing tangible action in their ideas for social-good campaigns.

Challenge misguided stuff from the start.

Sometimes a brand wants to go where they just shouldn’t. As an outside consulting force, agencies have a responsibility to identify better business solutions than a sorely misplaced activism attempt. Agency leaders can challenge bad takes on brand activism at the beginning of a relationship with a client and throughout the campaign development process.

Pride-washing, greenwashing, pinkwashing… slapping the imagery of a movement onto a brand’s logo or packaging simply isn’t enough.

Third, become the experts.

Take responsibility for the work and do your research.

Strategists: become activist-literate.

Strategists have a responsibility to work with their creatives and avoid Pepsi-level pitfalls at every step in the process. Deeper research means content that resonates better with the conscious consumers brands are trying to reach.

Ask yourself what role you play in the larger context of a movement.

As commercial speech, advertising will never do the job of true activism. It does, however, offer a massive platform for awareness and persuasion. Advertising should see itself as an early stage in the funnel toward change; campaigns that educate or raise awareness of a problem are the most socially responsible.

Test your impact and your assumptions.

Your brilliant activist idea could have harmful social impacts you never saw coming. As much as Millennials and Gen Z seem to demand brand activism, they’re also the biggest critics of these campaigns. Avoid lazy activist jargon and do rigorous research to understand how your brand activism might change things — and how it might be received.

Equinox’s LGBTQAlphabet spot was brilliant…until it made A stand for “Ally,” not “Asexual.” A little extra research might have tempered backlash for an otherwise powerful advertisement.

Then, bring activism in.

Don’t let brand work become the only way we make a difference.

Engage employees with something meaningful that’s not just client projects.

Advertising often sees itself as occupying the space between commerce and art. People in the industry care about that, and many of the folks I interviewed cited employees’ personal quests for meaningful work as the impetus behind brand activism projects.

But even campaigns with the best intentions can be harmful without training and a reason for being. Agencies should think about how to satisfy employees’ activist ambitions so social good only makes it into advertising when it makes the most sense.

Address identity and professional privilege in your agency culture.

Many people I interviewed expressed frustration over pressure from leadership to address activist issues when they didn’t feel it was right. A few female creatives, especially, seemed fed up with being pressured to create empty “femvertising.” It’s not the sole responsibility of minority groups in the agency world to stop offensive content from being created. With meaningful training and steps toward culture change, agencies can address this problem.

In 2017, 72andsunny published a playbook for “expanding and diversifying the creative class” and embraced activism and brand citizenship in its business model. Is there a place for activism within agencies themselves — and not just in the work we make for our clients?

And maybe — break the bubble.

Sometimes radical results require radical action.

Match brand campaigns with pro-bono clients to maximize the benefit to both.

It’s crazy. But it just might work. One professional talked about a project in which two (non-activist) clients combined their briefs and their budgets to create a single, powerful campaign that benefitted both. What if brands did that with non-profits and activist groups to create authentic synergy and mutually beneficial projects? You tell me.

Consult directly with activists when developing a campaign.

This one should be obvious, but it’s shockingly rare. Work directly with the people on the ground. Consult with the movements itself. Boost your brand activism credibility and gain valuable insights on what’s actually happening in the issue you want to address.

Relinquishing creative control to stakeholders and influencers in a movement.

This final radical suggestion gives a new meaning to “agency.” In the spirit of influencer marketing, what if brands elevated the actual voices of stakeholders in a movement? What if efforts at the grassroots had more of a say in the way they’re portrayed in activist ads? Influencers are becoming content creators in other contexts — that trend may apply to brand activism, too.

So, let’s talk about this.

These recommendations are just a starting point — a reflection of key themes that emerged in my research and conversations. There is so much more to discuss, and so much that my interviews didn’t quite address. Many people I talked to spoke from the assumption that “activism” is moving from an activity for vocal subcultures to a part of mainstream popular culture (this brilliant report from TBWA further examines that assumption). Is that true? What does that mean for brands?

Beyond that, while my research addressed the larger, operational side of brand activism and purpose, it skated around what I hoped to unpack when I began this project: the intricacies of crafting the activist messages themselves. What kind of issue framing is most effective? What tone should brands take when talking about social movements? What are the implications of different types of imagery? There’s so much more I want to know.

So what’s next? Some are cynical about the relationship between social movements are advertising at its root, and don’t see much opportunity for change. In the words of one agency vet, disingenuous brand activism is “a tale as old as advertising.” And it’s a fair question: why should the onus for activism be coming from corporations and advertisements?

Yet others maintain a sort of desperate optimism when it comes to activist brands. Those optimists see the sheer cultural power of brands as a under-tapped resource for positive change. They recognize the problems with current attempts, but plow on, lured by the potential of wielding immense financial and cultural power.

After all this research, I’d have to say I’m in the second camp. In fact, “desperate optimism” explains a lot about my generation. All said, I think that the brands and agencies who will truly benefit from brand activism will forge genuine connections between causes and corporate platforms. They’ll build out their unique value to clients, earn industry awards and satisfy young talent. And maybe, (maybe), they’ll change the world.

If you made it this far, I’m impressed. Here are 2 things you can do:

  1. Read my thesis. I don’t expect anyone to do this. If you do, let me know and I’ll buy you a drink for being a crazy nerd.
  2. Send me an email. Tell me what you agree with or disagree with. Let’s meet up, continue the conversation, and maybe even make something.

I can’t wait to chat.



Rachel Benner

Personal & professional musings. Opinions my own, as they say.