Speaking at last month’s MAD//Fest London last month on the Kantar Marketplace Hexagon Stage, Christopher Miller, Global Head of Activism, and Kerry Thorpe, Communications Director, both said that: “Whilst some have tried to suggest that being woke is a bad thing, ‘if you go woke, you may go broke,’ we’re here to tell you that’s bullsh*t!”

In fact, the data, from the Edelman Trust Barometer, suggests the exact opposite. Miller elaborated: “So for those who suggest that somehow being woke or brands being engaged and involved in helping address the issues of the day is somehow bad for business. Actually, it's what consumers expect.” 

Ben & Jerry’s have long been thought of as the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to purpose and activism because both have been part of the values and culture of the company since it was founded in 1978. Ben Cohen, co-founder, took the view that the strongest bonds that any brand can make with its customers was around a set of values. Not ground breaking news in 2023, but back in 1978, it was revolutionary.  

But how do you do it correctly and authentically? Both Thorpe and Miller were keen to stress that their approach was quite different from the norm in which the goal of such campaigns is to drive brand equity. “We start at a very different place…it starts with what are our values? What are the things we believe? What's the change we seek to make in the world? And then we want to build an emotionally compelling campaign that encourages people, not only to consume a piece of content, but ultimately to take action focused on making change in the world... When we do this, when we're focused on authentically driving change. It accrues big rewards to the brand.”

Here are two of Thorpe’s and Miller’s four rules to help guide brands' approach to purpose and activism. 

It’s better to be talked about than not talked about

Ben & Jerry’s have used their platform to advocate and protect the rights of refugees seeking asylum and have been a vocal critic of the UK government’s policy to people crossing the channel and their controversial ‘Rwanda plan’. This led to headlines, like that below, which pitted the Home Secretary against Ben & Jerry’s. 

For most brands such a headline would be a crisis comms issue, something that most brands would hate. However, as Thorpe told the packed audience: “This wasn’t a disaster at all for Ben & Jerry’s. We have put an issue on the map in a way that an NGO might not be able to do alone.” She added: “The debate that it stirs is worth it for us if people are drawn attention to the issue and then might take action.” 

As for the effect on sales of their ice-cream? “There are those who know what Ben and Jerry's stand for, who are more inclined to buy ice cream. So as you lose people by being clear and not playing it safe, you also gain people who know exactly what you stand for. And we don't do it for this brand equity driver, we do it to drive change. But what this shows is that it resonates with our audiences. When we make these clear statements, people understand who we are and what we stand for, and then move towards us.”

The job isn’t to say what’s popular. It’s to make popular what we need said.

Miller said that the murder of George Floyd was not just a seminal moment in the movement for racial justice and civil rights in America, “ in many ways, it was an important moment for how corporate citizenship was viewed - brands in the US and around the world felt the need to speak out and speak up on issues of racial justice.” 

Within 72 hours of the murder, Ben & Jerry’s released a very clear statement, which Miller said, “contrasted with most other corporate statements on the murder. Words matter. It’s important not just to say something, but how and what you say is just as important.”

Ben & Jerry’s statement, shown above, was very clear about both the problem in very clear and stark language. Miller, not picking on anyone, gave the example of the NFL for contrast. Their statement didn’t even use the term race or racism to describe the issue. Miller said that he assumed they “were concerned about being controversial.” Ben & Jerry’s statement however, helped set the standard for how companies should take a stand on issues like this. 

Miller ended by saying, “Jamie Han, co founder global three fifty.org global climate advocacy group, summed it up better than I think I could, by saying that we have a huge megaphone. And unlike some other companies and brands, we're not afraid to use it, we help our movement partners reach new audiences. And as you know we're not afraid of putting pressure on key decision makers.”

To find out more about these two rules and to find out about the other two watch this brilliant keynote here

This session, along with all the content from the three-days of MAD//Fest, is available here on our YouTube channel.