brands on a mission social movements

Brand Advocacy: Can Brands Drive Social Movements?

The following excerpt is adapted from “Brands on a Mission.” Dr. Myriam Sidibe, author of “Brands on A Mission,” is one of the world’s leading experts on how brands can meaningfully adopt social causes to create lasting, transformative change.

The strongest brands stand for something bigger than the products they sell – they stand for social movements that benefit society. But is your brand ready to move up to that level? Is it able to inspire consumers, draw in rival brands, and engage partners from the public and private sector?

To carry out a social mission at scale, brands must operate on a level higher than simply focusing on consumer behavior change linked to their products. They will advocate for broad-based efforts to support systemic change benefitting society at large.

Here, we are talking about the role of brands raising awareness for a social issue that brings greater value to society beyond increasing buy-in to the brand and the products manufactured. Shifting public perception toward healthier outcomes can be a win-win for brands and the public. But doing it well means approaching it with a different mindset than conventional brand communication.

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Taking a stand in today’s popular culture

Enlightened brands have realized that broadening out to shift public perceptions and general cultural narratives is key to educating consumers, not just focusing on policy. They have done this partly because of wider social trends in authority, as the public is less likely to trust the recommendations of governments and other major institutions.

They are more likely to trust their peers or someone like them, which makes democratizing channels such as social media increasingly powerful. As Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone, has pointed out, “Today we are able to connect, learn and share at a speed and scale never before possible.”

With traditional authority figures losing their influence, companies and brands have a greater opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to shape narratives and communities for the better. Social power is moving to looser arrangements, more networked, open source, collaborative, transparent, short-term and conditional.

Brands can help fill the gap with their unrivaled reach and trust built over years with consumers, including a ready-made presence on media with television and digital advertising. They can tap into “tribal” communities of people who share a certain interest or commitment. And brands can and are starting to take a position on moral issues, which they have previously not done (such as Walmart on gun control and the sale of certain types of ammunition).

In a study of global brands (“The Truth About Global Brands”), across 29 countries, 81 percent of 30,000 consumers surveyed agreed that brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives.

They tend to trust companies and brands to drive change quicker than politicians and multilateral organizations. But be careful: once trust is broken, it’s hard to repair. As the author Seth Godin has said, “If you earn trust then you can do everything else, but if not, then you won’t create any progress let alone a movement.”

A key principle for creating a movement is attracting other partners to your cause. The word “advocacy” in fact comes from the Latin “advocare,” to call out for support. Purposeful brands do that by enlisting help from a wide range of partners and ordinary people to achieve their stated goal. They open up discussions with governments, community leaders, NGOs and consumers, building trust and support around a mutual objective and prompting policymaking and funding to hasten transformational change.

Advocacy is primarily for the benefit of society in general, and nowhere is this truer than with public health, so benefits to the brand must be secondary or long-term. This is why we are calling this brand advocacy, where brands will achieve far more by thinking and engaging broadly, using their iconic status and creative skills of their people to keep the key issue on the public agenda.

Related: Why Emotional Connection is Essential in Business

Setting roles with partners

Marianne Blamire is Global Chief Strategy Officer at MullenLowe salt, and she worked hand-in-hand with me creating the assets for Global Handwashing Day.

From her experience of supporting brand advocacy work, she sums up a list of what brands can do to help create a movement:

  1. Go beyond the brand: Focus on the social purpose itself and on a measurable outcome. Not only will this inspire consumers, but it will also draw in rival brands and partners from the public and private sector.
  2. Identify a specific issue and set a rallying cry: Picture a desired outcome in, say, 10 years, such as, “We have reduced child mortality from x to y in five years and mobilized z million people rallying behind that issue.” Combine education with inspiration so people know what they can do, tangibly, as soon as you’ve made them aware of the issue.
  3. Make the issue human and simple: Strip out jargon, make the complex simple and the simple compelling. Make it relevant to ordinary lives. Inspire people to care about the issue as much as you do.
  4. Identify participants and a plan for engagement: You need both broad grassroot support and high-profile supporters. To whom does your issue matter to, and how? Can you align with their values, policies and existing programs? How will your brand educate and captivate each audience?
  5. Provide multiple ways to participate: Movements are emotional and communal, but people interact in different ways. For this reason, always provide a choice, such as watching and posting on social media, pledging donations, event attendance, volunteering and user-generated content. The act of jolting the public awake to a hidden issue, such as mental health, can break down social stigma and be of huge educative value if executed sensitively, so do not underestimate the power of online content views and TV. People can move up the steps as they deepen their interest and commitment.
  6. Devolve power to partners and consumers, so they share ownership: In the public health context, it’s critical the movement goes beyond your brand as the issues are far too complex and systemic to be tackled in isolation. Not recognizing this complexity can dent a brand’s credibility and make worthy efforts unsustainable because of the budget and resources required to maintain it alone. Partners provide subject-matter expertise and behavioral change methodologies to add a depth that’s harder for brands to deliver on.
  7. Be transparent about the journey: People want to know if progress is happening and what the brand is doing to increase the pace. There’s authenticity in explaining how hard the journey will be – that’s why it’s a mission. Be open to learning from consumer interaction as you go and adjust the appeals accordingly.

Opportunities with social media and millennials

New digital media has certainly made it easier for brands to advocate, especially on difficult or low-engagement issues. Social media also gives people an easy way to self-identify with a cause. On World Aids Day or Breast Cancer Month, consumers just switch their profile picture on Facebook. It can take a long time for brands to get recognition for association with these global days. Brands need to be in it for the long haul, with consistency of investment and building trust. Success will not come overnight or after a single media campaign.

Above all, social media reduces the cost of delivering messages.

For Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach Five” campaign, advertising agency MullenLowe created a series of three-minute videos distributed on social media. Each video was set in a country struggling with hygiene, such as India, Indonesia and Kenya. The first video gained 19 million views and won several industry awards, and some went on to run as TV commercials.

Because social media offers freedom of expression, it also gave brands instant feedback, especially negative comments, so they can adjust messages to avoid a broad backlash, and also allowing for testing before launch.

Future brands may have little choice but to concentrate their efforts on social media. With 94 percent of teens globally on a mobile device daily, younger people increasingly congregate on those channels, from YouTube and Instagram to TikTok. They are therefore harder to reach with conventional advertising on television or even websites.

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Working internally

Any social movement from a brand should start in its own offices with its people. It has to be simple and creative enough that employees want to be engaged, and to sustain that engagement.

With Lifebuoy’s hand washing campaign, there have been different themes each year. And as Unilever has launched new campaigns such as ones aligned with Oral Health Day and World Food Day, everyone has been encouraged to get involved as volunteers, from factories to tea plantations, and even suppliers and retailers. Employees now expect their brands to produce materials that they can show to their families about why they go to work.


The biggest challenge is still ensuring that the brand team understands how to work with partners to drive specific elements of a social movement, encompassing policies and consumer involvement. The key is ensuring that the consumers themselves become the debater and the champion of the issues. You need a bigger issue than one your brand can fully encompass. Marketers tend to resist that perspective and focus on a moment in time when they can attract consumers’ attention whilst still giving all their creative might.

The real brand advocacy happens with a big vision and an authentic commitment on the ground. It’s not about just spending money. It’s about putting all your power toward developing joint solutions.

“Brands on a Mission” is available now wherever books are sold and can be purchased via

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