4 Lessons You Can Learn from Ben & Jerry’s About Sending the Right Message in Brand Activism
Authenticity is crucial to brand activism but how can you communicate this to your stakeholders?
The importance of sending the right message as a brand that is taking a stand cannot be understated. The right message can be powerful in uplifting a social issue and the voice of a marginalized community and changing the attitudes and behaviors of consumers, competitors, and other organizations.
In contrast, the wrong message – in the best case – does nothing and – in the worst case – hurts the issue itself.
So how can you craft the right message? In this post, I list four lessons that you can learn from Ben & Jerry’s. Ben & Jerry’s is a textbook example of a brand that is involved in authentic, value-driving activism – it is at the core of what the brand and company are about. Activism pulses throughout the entire company, from leadership to its products. It even has a corporate activism manager.
Lesson 1: Have an Objective
Without a clear objective, your message is meaningless. What are you trying to achieve with your activism? With this particular message that you’re sending out?
In a recent paper, Abby Nappier Cherup and I outline a framework that brands can use to identify the objective for their activism. This objective ultimately depends on the barriers that the social issue faces. We identify awareness, attitudes – their valence, strength, and extent to which they are polarized – as well as gaps between attitudes and behaviors as key barriers.
What is a barrier? A barrier is an obstacle that prevents the issue from being solved. For example, a major barrier to advancing equality for the Black community is negative attitudes and stereotypes that exist in society. These attitudes and stereotypes ultimately translate into controversy.
Ben & Jerry’s “Defund the Police” illustration is a great example of a message with a well-thought-out objective. In this picture, the brand illustrates – using their product – what defund the police means by distributing ice cream scoops from the U.S. police budget bucket into different cups, such as affordable housing, job training, or education. The message itself focuses on misinformation about the meaning of “defund the police” which may be central to negative attitudes that some consumers have towards the Black Lives Matter movement. By providing a clear, easy-to-understand illustration of this concept, Ben & Jerry’s can tackle these negative attitudes that present a barrier for the movement to make progress.
Lesson 2: Be Clear and Specific
Words matter. Period. There are multiple ways in which language matters for brand activism.
First, be clear and specific with your message. If a brand tippy-toes into activism without much thought, it likely sends a generic signal that shows support but is vague enough to evade responsibility when consumers come back and tell the brand that they don’t like the fact that it's taking a stand or the stand that it’s taking on an issue. However, brand activism requires a strong, committed signal. Therefore, the message needs to be clear and specific to create trust.
The message that “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy” is a great example of a concrete message that has a clear outcome or objective in mind. While many companies send the message that Black Lives Matter to them, Ben & Jerry’s went a step farther and detailed exactly which type of action is needed. This message is clear, bold, and there no way that it can be misinterpreted.
Lesson 3: Speak the Right Language
Speaking the right language – using words that accurately depict the struggles and injustices that the marginalized community is facing – is key.
The message conveyed in activism needs to resonate with multiple audiences, first and foremost the marginalized community. While a brand can get away with just focusing on consumers when talking about its social responsibility efforts, brand activism needs to focus on multiple stakeholders. It needs to resonate with the community it supports as well as consumers, community members, competitors, and policymakers if the brand is truly interested in changing attitudes or behaviors towards the social issue.
Ben & Jerry’s series of tweets on January 7th, the day after the insurrection, is a great example of a message that speaks the right language. During the insurrection, I noticed that several Twitter conversations centered around the media’s use of “protest” and expressed outrage at the term, especially in contrast to how the Black Lives Matter movement was covered the summer before. In contrast, Ben & Jerry’s made it clear that the insurrection was a riot involving white insurrectionists. Furthermore, they called out the differences in treatment between the rioters and Black Lives Matter protesters.
How does Ben & Jerry’s know that its message resonates with the community it wants to support? The company has a network of partners and allies that they can check with before sending out a response.
Lesson 4: Don’t Make it About You (the Brand)
The message should focus on the social issue and not the brand itself. The brand, most often, should take the role of an ally, if it’s not part of the marginalized community. But are you an ally?
Here’s what an ally is not. It’s not a brand that engages in activism when it’s convenient and “en-vogue” (situational allyship), neither is it a brand that sends out a message of support but doesn’t back it up with action (performative allyship). Instead, an ally continuously supports the social issue and backs their words up with action. This is at the core of being an authentic ally.
But more importantly, an ally realizes that activism is not about them. It’s about the issue, the injustice, the marginalized community. An ally supports and uplifts this community and amplifies its message. In no way should the ally’s message take over the community or, in the worst case, deflect from the issue itself because it creates controversy. Think about it this way: Any conversation that focuses on a brand “woke-washing,” is a lost opportunity to amplify the issue itself and create change.
Putting it All Together
Brands have to recognize that brand activism is different from social responsibility. Brand activism focuses on creating change, such as advocating for and implementing equal opportunities for those that are currently marginalized. Thus, brands need to strategically think about how their actions and communication efforts support these change efforts.
Because activism focuses on communities that are marginalized, these activities will be scrutinized more by stakeholders than social responsibility. Any perception that a brand is exploiting these communities for their gain will create backlash. For example, several brands that changed their social media profile picture to a black square on “Blackout Tuesday” to show support for the Black community, were accused of “woke-washing” because their actions were perceived as less than genuine. As Mark Ritson pointedly asked in his piece in MarketingWeek: “If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your Black board members?”
Don’t be this brand. Be strategic and authentic in your messaging and send the right message.
Meike Eilert is a marketing professor researching how companies engage in corporate social responsibility and activism. She loves ice cream - Ben & Jerry's AmeriCone Dream is one of her favorites. Connect with her on LinkedIn.