In 2020, Ben and Jerry’s, a popular ice cream manufacturer in the USA, published a banner on its Twitter social handle in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. While many companies followed suit, none gained the hugely positive response the ice cream company did.
What made Ben and Jerry’s statement stand out from the rest? Possibly the fact that the brand has been practicing corporate activism for years and aggressively follows its social mission. In fact, the brand has an internal position titled, ‘Corporate Activism Manager’, which speaks to its commitment to its values.
Corporate activism is the public stand taken by a company to positively impact people and sometimes even legislation when dealing with complex and sensitive issues around environmental, political, social, and human rights causes. Unlike corporate social responsibility (CSR), which has a philanthropic bent and is connected to core business and profits, corporate activism is about company action regarding issues that are often polarizing and highly debatable. As a concept, it also has little to do with business activities or profits.
Changing policy – a mission beyond profits
Corporate activism is closely linked with company policy. Katerina Baduk, an Associate Consultant from Clarkston Consulting, mentions how mission statements make an impact.
For Ben and Jerry’s, their mission statement is, “To manage our company for sustainable financial growth; use our company in innovative ways to make the world a better place, and make fantastic ice cream – for its own sake.” It aligns activism with the company’s culture. The company uses unique ways to canvas support, such as how it names its ice cream flavors – ‘Imagine Whirled Peace’, ‘Home Sweet Honey Comb – Refugees are Welcome’, and ‘Pecan Resist’, all of which reflect that brand’s activist voice on human rights issues.
Another company, Patagonia Inc, an outdoor clothing brand, has a similar story. Its mission statement ‘We are in business to save our home planet’ highlights its environmental activism. The company adopts sustainable manufacturing in line with green practices across all suppliers. They also have a self-imposed 1% earth tax to empower efforts aimed at saving the planet.
In some ways, such mission statements set a course for employees as well. Recruits may be attracted to the values reflected in a mission statement that goes beyond profits. Companies that engage sincerely in corporate activism could also create opportunities for their staff to contribute time and effort to causes, making it a win-win for both.
Helping people – can brands have a social identity?
Policies are not the only driving force of corporate activism. Social footprint matters, too. In 2015, Walmart protested against gun violence and urged lawmakers to enact stricter firearms control. Similarly, Amazon, Apple, and Coca-Cola have pledged support to advocacy organizations focusing on racial equality and human rights. Some experts also find that millennials are more motivated to work with firms whose values and goals are aligned with theirs.
For some, corporate activism may seem like a marketing gimmick. For most, it is a way to drive change in policy and stand up for social causes. With the added benefit that it strikes a chord with groups of employees and customers.