Aurora Magazine

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The era of brand activism

How effective are brands in implementing their activism-based initiatives?
Updated Oct 30, 2017 05:13pm

The last couple of years have seen an exponential increase in corporate spending on cause-related campaigns, and this is now predicted to reach an all-time high of $2.06 billion by the end of this year (source: IEG Sponsorship Report), making 2017 the year when “activism comes of age”, according to many marketing and branding specialists.

Christian Sarkar and Phil Kotler have defined brand activism as a natural evolution from corporate social responsibility with businesses moving from corporate-driven operations to models driven by values. This shift is driven by the fact that the world we live in is increasingly defined by seismic political changes, economic uncertainty and social angst – a combination of factors that has led consumers to want to associate themselves with brands they believe stand for a greater purpose and share their values.

Uber makes for an excellent example to describe this changing customer behaviour. Earlier in 2017, ‘#DeleteUber’ trended worldwide on Twitter and almost 200,000 Uber users deleted their accounts. Triggering this reaction was the perception that the company was endorsing President Trump’s immigration policies by virtue of having taken a neutral stance on the demonstrations arising from these policies; in the same period, Lyft (Uber’s competitor) announced a one million dollar donation to the American Civil Liberties Union. Not only was Lyft praised for ‘standing up to’ President Trump’s executive order, angry customers switched their allegiance to Lyft and within hours, the company registered a huge increase in their user base – overtaking Uber for the first time.

This shift in behaviour has important implications for marketers worldwide. Unfortunately, due to the paucity of data it is difficult to determine whether this global wave is creating ripples in Pakistan. To try and find out a little more, Aurora conducted an online survey on whether brand activism is indeed a factor among Pakistani customers.

The people have spoken

The analysis of Aurora’s online survey yielded four interesting consumer insights.

1) Activism commands a price-premium

Forty percent (see figure 2) will buy a brand supporting a cause they consider to be important to them (for example, working with acid burn victims or providing free education to the underprivileged) even if it is priced well above the market average.

2) Activism fosters loyalty

Forty percent (see figure 3) will continue purchasing a brand (they use frequently) even if the brand raises its price in order to implement community development programmes. Furthermore, 54% (see figure 4) will stop using a product or service they are loyal to, if they think the brand has behaved unethically.

3) Activism wins customers

Thirty percent consider sustainability to be the most important factor when deciding which household consumption or personal care brand to buy. To put this statistic into context, respondents prioritised sustainability over the product’s availability, advertising and even price. Furthermore, 40% (see figure 5) were more inclined to try a new product if they know their purchase will benefit society in meaningful ways.

4) Activism matters to Millennials

Almost 75% of the respondents were Millennials (researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss describe Millennials as individuals born between 1982 and 2004). Given that the survey results make a case for brand activism, this implies that these young people want to support causes that are important to them through the brands they patronise and expect corporations to be actively involved in addressing environmental, social and economic challenges. Since over 50% of Pakistan’s population falls within this age bracket (source: CIA World Factbook), this means that more than 100 million (existing and future) buyers believe activism to be important when deciding on what to spend their money.

So, if activism is an important consideration for more than half of Pakistan’s population, to what extent, and how effectively, are brands engaging in activism? To answer this question, Aurora then spoke to some of the brands already engaged in activism, to understand their reasons for shifting from traditional marketing strategies and aligning their brand and the company’s vision with specific causes.

Brands turn activists

There is unanimous agreement that brand activism is now an integral component of branding strategy. This is because of the growing realisation among marketers that to be successful and stay relevant, brands have to say and do more than simply promote their functionality and benefits; they must have a larger purpose.

A case in point is how Surf’s positioning has changed. The brand’s tagline used to be ‘Surf Excel Haina’ The message was that the “detergent has the power to thoroughly wash any dirt or stains due to superior ingredients”. Then, in the 2000s, Surf flipped the message with ‘Daagh To Ache Hotey Hain’ (Dirt is Good).

According to Madiha Saeed, Senior Brand Manager, Surf Excel, “dirt was always seen as the enemy that had to be fought with a quality detergent. So, when Surf Excel labelled dirt as ‘good’ this may have seemed odd. This shift in the brand’s message was a conscious effort to bring about a change in the typical mindset of our society of keeping children safe and clean at all times and discourage activities that may soil their clothes.”

“We were telling our children that they should not try anything new, take chances or experiment; Surf Excel wanted to change this and therefore our advertising showed children getting dirty while learning new skills, making discoveries and helping others; and if they get dirt on them in the process, then Surf Excel is there to deal with it,” explains Humayun Shaikh, Director Marketing, Home Care, Unilever Pakistan. As a result, Surf Excel stopped talking about its strong washing powers and switched the focus on the benefits of letting children play and be themselves.


Another brand that changed strategy to incorporate activism is Reckitt Benckiser’s (RB) Veet. Until 2015, RB were organising the Miss Veet Super Model, a competition that provided young women, aspiring to join the world of show business, a platform to showcase their talent. However, given that RB is not a fashion brand, there was a realisation that despite its popularity, the competition was “off the brand footprint”. According to Fahad Ashraf, Director Marketing, RB, “this event was not adding value to the brand and neither was there a larger purpose to it. As one of the top beauty brands in Pakistan, Veet wanted to come up with a more holistic approach that would reach out to a wider cross-section of young women and make a difference in their lives; this is why Miss Veet Super Model was shelved and Miss Veet Pakistan was curated in 2016.”

The event now involves three stages. The first is outreach, whereby the brand team visit colleges and universities across Pakistan to create awareness and interest in the event; RB is hoping to reach out to at least one million young women this year. The second stage is driven by digital; the participants are encouraged to prepare for the final stage by studying the courses posted on the Veet Academy’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. The third and concluding stage is a head-to-head contest among the shortlisted participants who are tested on the five personality dimensions. The most accomplished young woman will be crowned Miss Veet Pakistan.

An integral and innovative component of the revamped event is the Veet Academy, a free, online mentorship programme. To this end, Veet brought on-board five activists who are offering tutorials and conducting courses focused on five core areas of a woman’s personality. Masarrat Misbah will give tips on charm; Hareem Farooq will coach on health and fitness; Sidra Iqbal will offer guidance on developing effective communication skills; Amina Sheikh will advise on developing mind and brain power through games and puzzles, and Sarwat Gilani will discuss confidence-building exercises. To maximise reach, all the courses are in Urdu. RB’s objective is to reach out to young and ambitious Pakistani women who dream of a better life, but do not have the confidence to achieve them. As Ashraf puts it, “the Veet Academy aims to bridge the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in our society. The focus is on self-improvement and exploring career paths; our objective is to instil confidence and self-worth in young Pakistani women, making them realise how small changes in personality and attitude can unleash their potential and give them a better chance at life.”

The move from Miss Veet Super Model to Miss Veet Pakistan reflects a shift in the brand’s messaging. Veet is still celebrating ‘beauty’; the difference is that the concept of beauty is no longer promoted as being ‘skin-deep’.

The power of digital

The marketing professionals Aurora spoke to believe that an important reason for the accelerated adoption of activism by brands is the impact of digital. Ashraf remarked that “there is a realisation that brands can no longer ‘manage’ a PR disaster no matter how great their crisis management team is. Thanks to the 24/7 nature of digital, when brands are ‘caught’ being unethical or socially- irresponsible, the repercussions can be instantaneous, devastating and long-lasting.” This comment is on point given the recent incidents involving Espresso and Fifth Avenue; the former apologised for posting content that people termed “highly insensitive” and “in bad taste”, while the latter had to discontinue an entire line of branded shirts that carried the slogan ‘LYING IS TOO MAINSTREAM, SO I GULA-LIE’. Both apologised on their Facebook page as soon as the criticism started pouring in, but the damage was done.

Read: Social Media – The Double-Edged Sword

However, there are other brands that have wielded the digital sword adeptly and taken advantage of this cost-effective medium in reaching wider audiences. RB added digital to their marketing mix to maximise the reach, impact and effectiveness of Miss Veet Pakistan, while Adamjee Life is a brand that has digital – and activism – almost woven into its DNA.

When Adamjee Life (established in partnership with Hollard Insurance Co. Limited, the largest private insurance group in South Africa) started operations in Pakistan in 2008, instead of targeting the general public by developing an extensive network of insurance agents, the company decided to focus on micro insurance through mobile phones. According to Sadi Syed, Senior Manager Marketing & New Initiatives, Adamjee Life, “micro insurance through the mobile phone is an important strategy because the majority of our population is financially excluded and there are limited insurance products available for them; yet Pakistan has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the region.”

The advantage that Adamjee Life had when executing this strategy was the fact that Hollard had already gained considerable experience in mobile insurance in other emerging markets, and the same model was replicated in Pakistan; partnership agreements were signed with cellular service providers, and all people had to do was send an SMS to buy insurance. Instead of having to pay premiums in lump sums, a specified amount would be deducted from the mobile account balance every day, depending on the package selected.

Syed says that mobile insurance is an important part of the company’s strategy because Adamjee Life “has a vision of a secure Pakistan, where every family is covered against uncertainties and financially protected in case of a calamity. We aim to provide financial assistance and protection to every individual, no matter where they live or which socio-economic segment they belong to.”

Improving quality of life is more than just a component of Adamjee Life’s mission and vision statements. Last year, the company conducted a digital campaign called ‘Ensure A Smile’, whereby people were asked to tweet #ShareASmile – and for every tweet received, Adamjee Life donated Rs 10 to The Citizen’s Foundation; over Rs 10 million were generated through this campaign. Given this success, this year, Adamjee Life has developed yet another digital-only campaign (for Ramzan), focused on addressing malnutrition. “Research indicates that currently 22% of the population is suffering from malnutrition, and this number is expected to go up to 45% by 2025. This means that half the people in Pakistan will be malnourished. This is very alarming, which is why we came up with the ‘#FillthePlate’ campaign this year,” Syed explained. The idea is that for every tweet of #FillthePlate, one underprivileged person will be offered a nutritious meal. A total of seven million tweets were received, a number far in excess of the company’s expectations. Syed says the reasons why Adamjee Life has a preference for digital are firstly, the medium allows the brand to reach very targeted audiences and engage with them and secondly, it allows maximum reach and exposure with limited spending, which is not possible on any other medium.

The cost of activism

There is no denying that cause-related marketing and activism are shifts that brands in Pakistan may no longer be able to afford to ignore, but is it expensive to be an ‘activist brand’? The answer was an emphatic “no”. However, what is crucial is that brands have to be extremely careful about how they incorporate activism in their communication, products and services and they must understand that activism is an investment that yields returns in the long-term.

In Ashraf’s view, brands have to decide whether their objective is trading or brand-building. In trading, the idea is to meet sales targets; brand-building is about developing a persona, associations and relationships. “For brand activism to be financially sustainable, it is vital that the cause you have associated your brand with is closely tied in with your commercial agenda. If more young women want to be well turned-out and confident, they will get more out of life while the chances are that Veet sales will also increase. If more people become hygiene-conscious, they will be healthier and sales of Dettol soap will also grow.”

Shaikh concurs with this viewpoint. In his opinion, for brand activism to succeed, the product or service must be the driving force. “Surf Excel’s view is to let children play, make mistakes and learn from them, while Surf Excel is there to wash away the stains, relieving mothers of their worry. When a brand successfully seeds a thought in the customer’s mind and lives up to the promise made, only then will it translate into long-term business value in the form of a loyal and engaged customer base.”


"Consumers today are perfectly able to differentiate between brands that slap on the label of ‘doing good’ during Ramzan and those which advocate this message consistently throughout the year, every year."


This brings us to a criticism often directed at brands whenever cause-related campaigns or initiatives are announced: “This is just a marketing gimmick and a ploy by big corporations to exploit people’s emotions and maximise their profits.”

Shaikh’s answer makes for the perfect response to this.

“Brands are commercial entities and should not be equated with non-profit welfare organisations. Statements such as ‘brands are maximising sales’ and ‘they must be making a lot of money’ do not hold water because that is our job. Having said that, it is more important for a responsible corporate entity to do good for society along with its commercial activity”

He adds that consumers today are perfectly able to differentiate between brands that slap on the label of ‘doing good’ during Ramzan and those which advocate this message consistently throughout the year, every year. “Authenticity, credibility and consumer trust can only be achieved through consistency,” Shaikh adds.

This is perhaps why EFU Life Assurance recently decided to turn their ‘Meri Shan Mera Pakistan’ (My pride, My Pakistan) campaign into a year-round activity, rather than tying it to the August 14 Independence Day celebrations.

According to Aman Hussain, AGM Marketing, EFU Life Assurance, “our vision is to beautify and reclaim the walls of major public areas of the city and replace the wall chalkings in Karachi with visuals depicting the history, culture and heritage of Pakistan.”

The project started when EFU Life was approached by Abdoz Arts, a student organisation, which presented the idea of painting the walls across the city. ‘Meri Shan Mera Pakistan’ started last year by painting a 2000-foot wall at Ayesha Manzil, based on the theme of ‘Ek parcham kay saye tale hum aik hain’ (we stand united under one flag). The objectives, adds Hussain, were to celebrate Pakistan’s regional diversity in terms of culture, food, attire and festivals, and yet convey the message that Pakistanis are united as one nation. EFU Life now plans to take ‘Meri Shan Mera Pakistan’ to other Pakistani cities in the forthcoming months.

In conclusion, an increasing number of consumers (a significant proportion of which are Millennials) are selecting brands that stand for values and causes that are important to them.

Irrespective of whether we think of brand activism as yet another marketing tool, or as a genuine effort by companies to bring about positive change, statistics indicate that an increasing number of consumers expect a commitment to social purpose. Moving forward, marketers in Pakistan have to start thinking strategically about how they want to build their brand’s voice in a way that evokes authenticity and brings a genuine consideration for the issues that resonate with their audiences. To succeed however, brands must, first of all, understand that sincerity and consistency must underlie any effort they make towards harnessing the power of brand activism.

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