Speak Up! A New Era of Corporate Activism.

Coronavirus. Black Lives Matter. LGBTQ+ protests.

These are only some examples of the world’s current socio-political state, and it seems that the modern consumer is significantly more conscious of their socio-political surroundings than ever before. Consumers no longer expect to identify with a brand – the brand must also identify with them. From fluid trade marks to Facebook boycotts, brands seem to be joining their consumers on this journey, and rightfully so.

Below, we shall explore how brands have become more socio-politically active, and the effectiveness of each method.

Fluid Trade Marks:

Trade marks and brands are everywhere you look – you can’t avoid them! Here is a quick breakdown of what trade marks are and how they work (for a more detailed explanation of trade marks, click here).

All image rights belong to According To A Law Student.

From social distancing to PRIDE, A large number of brands have recently adapted their iconic trade marks in support of such movements. These are called fluid trade marks.

Google is a great example of a fluid trade mark. Have you ever noticed how Google changes its logo during widely celebrated holidays or anniversaries? Well, recently, Google has been adapting its search engine logo to promote social distancing measures.

Image is titled ‘Stay at home. Save Lives’. All image rights belong to Google LLC.
Image is titled ‘Thank you emergency services workers’. All image rights belong to Google LLC. For more examples, search ‘Google Doodles’.

The automotive industry has also jumped on the bandwagon, with Audi and Volkswagen having adapted their iconic logos to promote social distancing.

Why is this significant?

Consider the example below.

Image created by According To A Law Student. The original idea, however, was sourced from The British Library.

Fairy Liquid is a market leading dishwashing soap brand. As you can see, some of Fairy Liquid’s competitors have copied the shape of the bottle, others have copied the colour of the soap and lid, and some have done both.

Now here is a very important lesson: as much as Fairy Liquid’s competitors have copied some features of the original product, one thing has been left untouched… the Fairy Liquid logo and name. This is because Fairy Liquid have registered their name and logo as trade marks, and thus have legal protection from competitors. To take this example further, if a competitor chose to copy Fairy Liquid’s name or logo, they could be found to have ‘infringed’ Fairy Liquid’s intellectual property rights (= serious trouble!).

Hopefully, this example illustrates the importance of a trade mark. It is undoubtedly one of the most valuable assets of a company as it allows the consumer to distinguish a brand from its competitors (whether it’s due to the brand’s reputation, quality, values or otherwise).

Therefore, why would companies alter the one feature that distinguishes them from their competitors?

Fluid trade marks are widely perceived as a marketing ploy – it is highly unlikely that they will become a permanent change to a brand. Expectedly, this has received mixed feelings from consumers. Are fluid trade marks an emblem of genuine corporate solidarity with consumers, or simply following a trend until it becomes old news? You decide.

Corporate Rebranding:

While fluid trade marks may only be a temporary measure, some companies have made much more permanent changes.

In light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, packaged rice company, Uncle Ben’s, has announced that it has made plans to remove its black farmer image that is currently widely used on its packaging. According to an article by The Guardian, the company first began using the image in 1946 as a reference to a fictional African American Texan rice farmer. Mars, the parent company of Uncle Ben’s, has apologised for any offence caused and have also considered the possibility of changing the brand’s name.

All image rights belong to Mars Inc.

This decision quickly followed an earlier announcement made by PepsiCo that it was ‘retiring’ its Aunt Jemima brand name and image.

Image taken from Forbes Magazine.

With a 131-year-old history, Aunt Jemima is one of the world’s most recognisable breakfast food brands. However, its image of a black woman based on a ‘minstrel character’ is no stranger to controversy and the company has finally succumbed to consumer pressure to change its branding.

Why is this significant?

Previously, we questioned the effect of temporary changes to a company and its brand. Here, however, the current socio-political climate has left a much more permanent effect.

Rebranding is an opportunity for a fresh start. However, it can also be a corporate and PR nightmare. In most cases, rebranding entirely strips and replaces the very mechanisms that have driven a brand forward to date. This is a daunting process, but often a necessary one.

Over the years, both the Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima characters have undergone several makeovers. Aunt Jemima has been changed 6 times in the brand’s 131 year history, with the most significant change occurring in 1989 when Aunt Jemima’s headscarf was removed and replaced with perfectly curled hair and pearl earrings. For an interesting article on the logo’s history, click here.

Similarly, up until 2007, Uncle Ben wore a white collar and black bow tie, which sparked major consumer backlash as it drew connotations of slavery. In the 2007 marketing campaign, however, the collar and bow tie was replaced with a loose open white collar, with the image promoting a ‘chairman of the board’ trope.

Times are changing and so are consumers and their values. Although both characters have undergone several makeovers to fit with societal expectations, the real problem is the history behind these mascots and what they once represented. The recent Black Lives Matter protests arguably put the final nail in the corporate coffin, and led to the inevitable rebranding of these household names.

Incorporating Activism into Brand Identity:

Several brands such as Patagonia and Nike have successfully incorporated activism into their brand identity. However, in this article we shall focus on one brand in particular…

With whacky flavours such as Phish Food and Chunky Monkey, Ben & Jerry’s is definitely not afraid to stand out! The ice cream company’s long-standing activism speaks for itself, and arguably, is more iconic than its products themselves!

In 2005, Ben & Jerry’s released Fossil Fuel, a fudge-flavoured ice cream which doubled as a political message against the harmful environmental impact of fossil fuels. A similair stand was made in 2015 with Save Our Swirled, a raspberry flavoured ice cream with marshmallow and chocolate chips aiming to raise awareness of global warming. Ben & Jerry’s have also been avid supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, having released a company statement in 2016 showing their support of black rights. In 2017, Ben & Jerry’s banned the sale of two scoops of the same flavour in Australia in its stand for gay marriage. Are you beginning to see a pattern?

More recently, Ben & Jerry’s have taken to Twitter to reaffirm their stance on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Image sourced from Twitter.

Ben & Jerry’s have also invested in social media advertising in support of asylum seekers and their right to work. Click here for the advert.

Why is this significant?

In a sea of one-time corporate charity donations and empty social responsibility statements, Ben & Jerry’s is somewhat of an anomaly. Activism has become a key, and more importantly, consistent feature of the brand’s identity. Although the brand’s ‘hippie’ roots may have some influence on its noteworthy activism, it seems that even after its acquisition by Unilever in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s has remained committed to its values.

However, this does not go to say, that Ben & Jerry’s have an entirely clean streak. The Unilever subsidiary has been brought under fire several times by consumers, most recently for its advertising campaign claiming that its ice cream comes from ‘happy cows’.

Nevertheless, as far as brand activism goes, Ben & Jerry’s still remain as one of the most socio-politically and environmentally active household name brands. In fact, Ben & Jerry’s recently participated in an online boycott campaign, which happens to be our next topic…

Facebook Boycotts:

Facebook was recently targeted by the ‘Stop Hate for Speech’ campaign, which has seen over 1000 household name brands pulling out their advertisements from the social media platform.

The boycott sparked in mid-June after Facebook’s failure to ‘monitor and remove objectionable content’. Campaigners argue further that Facebook has been an instrumental platform in spreading hate speech due to its complacent attitude towards policing such content and disinformation.

Major brands including Adidas, HP, Unilever, Coca Cola and Microsoft have sided with the campaign, halting all advertising on Facebook for the foreseeable future. For a more detailed list of brands participating in the boycott, click here.

Why is this significant?

The long-term impact of this is still unclear. Similar boycotts were held against YouTube in 2017 and 2019, but it seems that the video platform has since recovered.

More interestingly, an article on the Financial Times states that ‘of the $69.7bn [Facebook] made in advertising revenue last year, the bulk came from small and medium-sized companies.’ This means that Facebook may not be as heavily impacted by the advertising boycott as it may initially appear. Unlike major corporations, smaller businesses may not have the resources to fund major advertising campaigns on other platforms and thus heavily rely on Facebook as a platform for advertising their business. Arguably, corporate boycotts make more of a political impact than an economic one, however, this may be the first step in regulating the Big Tech companies and making them accountable for their platforms.

For more information on the Facebook boycott, check out this article.


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