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Social Activism in Branding: Friend or Faux?

Coca-Cola recently removed the labels from their cans in the Middle East, leaving only one line on the back: “Labels are for cans, not for people” appearing next to their iconic red and white ribbon. The ribbon alone is enough to recognize the beverage brand giant, and the company claims the lack of other labeling is designed to promote open-mindedness and tolerance. (The label-less cans were released at the same time as Ramadan, which runs through July 17th this year). Since it’s unlikely that Coke will forever ban their own brand name from their cans, does a stunt like this make the right kind of waves?

The campaign has caused some stir amongst media, but Coca-Cola is certainly not the first to promote a social cause through marketing and branding techniques. In fact, just about a year ago AdWeek ran an article called “Social Activism Becomes a Thing for Brands Thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge,” in which it highlighted some big names (including Samsung and KFC) that have utilized social media to promote various non-brand related causes. Dove, owned by Unilever, launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty” over 10 years ago and has run countless ads and “Real Beauty Sketches” promoting positive body image and feel good messaging for both men and women. The company website states that the goal of the campaign is to “widen the definition of beauty…and was created to provoke discussion and encourage debate.”

On the surface, these campaigns seem genuine and leave you with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, these huge corporations really do care about the people who purchase their products and not just the dollar signs that accompany sales. But is this really the case, or do brands see these tactics as yet another way to drive consumers to make a purchase? And does that even matter, if they are doing good for the world – after all, why shouldn’t they benefit from using their brand to effect change?

The better that brands can position themselves in the social light, the more likely consumers are to purchase their goods, consciously or otherwise. Following the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to legalize same-sex marriage, Facebook – arguably the most influential social media platform in use today – launched “Celebrate Pride,” an app that allowed users to change their profile pictures to translucent rainbow squares in a show of solidarity and support. Even people who prefer other social networks found themselves going back to Facebook to rainbow their profile pic and be part of the movement.

What it all comes down to is that people want to feel good when they make a purchase. We work hard for our money, and when it comes to spending, people would rather patronize a brand that is “making a difference” or standing for something good, rather than just handing dollars over to mega-corporations that lack a human connection. Brands know this and actively seek out ways to make that connection and prove that they’re the good guys and not just the money suckers. So what do you think? Are these campaigns genuine and do they belong in the public spotlight? Or are they mere marketing ploys to gain more profit by tugging at heart strings, and should social activism be kept separate from brands advertising plans?

~ Anne Martin, AAE, The S3 Agency


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