Brands and Activism: 5 Tips for Real Engagement


Emerging codes of representative communication are related to action: words are no longer enough — we must take action.

by Lena Maciel cover Zhanna Kadyrova a joint collaboration of Beatriz Pedreira, Gabriela Juns, Guilherme Turri, and Túlio Malaspina translated by Carolina Walliter

We are living in thought-provoking times. The democratization of the media has given voice to a number of previously neglected parties. Issues such as racism, feminism, and gender are on the agenda and will remain so for years to come. Political participation has become more valued as part of life and society. Our cultural and cognitive repertoires are widening to encompass more and more diverse people. Companies and brands have noticed the trend: have you seen the number of engagement campaigns around lately?

So far, so good. After all, brands have been a part of our daily life since the early 1920s, reproducing and disseminating culture; so it is quite fair that they are reacting to the spirit of the time. However, the results of some of these well-intentioned campaigns are exactly the opposite to those desired — some even seem like a joke. When it comes to marketing, contemporary consumers are aware of something that is unfortunately more common than we would like: fanciful and empty speeches that are not reflected in practice.

In order to avoid this kind of embarrassment — and even the risk of a product or brand being boycotted due to poor communication — it is important to understand expectations when an institution approaches certain issues. What basic, careful steps should be taken in this endeavor?

First things first: the activist scenario

Activism is any militant or continuous action that aims at promoting effective social change; it is rooted in doing something to reach that turning point. It can be done through dialogue or by pushing social agents — such as governments and corporations — to make decisions to achieve such changes. It is exhaustive, slow work, and most of the time it is unpaid and goes unrecognized.

Even so, it is impossible to talk about engagement without addressing activism. This is because activists are the ones on the front line in the fight against social and political inequalities, which are contrary to their ideal of community; these are the people who often end up pushing society forward.

Bertha Lutz was a Brazilian biologist and activist responsible for political measures that resulted in women’s voting rights in Brazil.

Activists are swimming against the tide every day, shaking up the status quo. Activism addresses the most diverse areas of human knowledge; it covers so many issues related to race, gender, the environment, economy, sports, infrastructure, and technology, among others.

Activists are deeply uncomfortable with the negative consequences of failures in the system. They are fueled by frustration. And what is most interesting is that when change is achieved, a much larger portion of the population benefits thanks to the collective and unselfish nature of activism.
Ronaldo Lemos is a lawyer, professor, and researcher. In 2009, he created a blog calling on civil society to write the text for what would become the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights (“Marco Civil da Internet”). More than 800 contributions were received during the first round of debates. And on April 23, 2014, the bill was approved by the Federal Senate as Act no. 12.965/14, remaining to this day a positive example of the synthesis between activism and institutional politics.

On the other hand, we know that behind every engaged brand there is an industry that is ultimately only interested in financial returns. And our question rests precisely in the conflict between these two realities: how much of this engagement boom is a real commitment to change and how much of it is simply a concern with adapting to the market?

Zhanna Kadyrova

Brand awareness undoubtedly has an impact, but it needs to be able to bring about change; a sense of improvement in the way people feel about life. Due to its reach and scope, advertising plays an educational role, nurturing the collective imagination and recommending practices to be followed. Ideally speaking, all communication should consider the responsibility it suggests.


1. Approach

First, get closer to the cause you want to promote so you can actually understand it.  Be mindful when approaching the cause by listening rather than giving your opinion or taking over the power of speech. Every caution is recommended here; approach and appropriation are separated by a thin line. That said, it is the people connected to a cause who best understand the daily difficulties, multiple demands, and potential solutions to responsibly increase their visibility.

A good example of approach comes from I Hate Flash, a group of photographers that used their influence to amplify the voice of those suffering prejudice. Their project, Abre (F)alas, has developed many media resources to address sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia during Carnival. The impactful strength and beauty of the campaign is due not only to the skills of photographers and journalists participating in the project, but also (and especially) due to the incomparable brilliance of first-person testimonials.

2. Collaboration

After becoming familiar with the issues relevant to the cause, a proposal of cooperation becomes feasible, in which both sides can develop a theme, understanding their roles and contributions in this partnership.

Box1824 recently noted in a study that there were no residual cultural codes of representation in communication. In other words, not so long ago, nobody talked about diversity. Today, codes considered dominant are based on speech: people are talking about diversity and suggesting positive approaches to those issues. Moreover, the emerging codes are related to action: speech is no longer enough since it highlights the system’s faulty perception of a category; one must act instead of (just) talking.

For example, if you are moved by the LGBTQ cause, offer jobs to people from this community, as many of them live in vulnerable conditions. If you are interested in technology, try to sponsor a lecture, a convention, or even a conference on the matter. Bear in mind that for now, it is important that the protagonists, and not the brands, are the activists of the cause; they are the ones who should attend events to expand their network and learn from those involved.

CryptoRave is inspired by the global action of CryptoParty, which aims to spread basic encryption-related software and concepts. The event was launched in 2014, gathering more than 2,500 people each year.

3. Communication

This is the most common practice adopted by companies today. Countless brands have raised their flags for “diversity,” either through their speech or their choice of models. Everybody knows communication is essential, and every cause wants to turn the spotlight on themselves. Therefore, to be better received by an audience, companies should follow the two steps above when creating their ads, always bearing in mind that old saying: actions speak louder than words.

Avon promoted a line of foundations through the “Cara e Coragem” campaign, addressing representation both in the variety of product colors and in their choice of models. Young, trans, old, black, white, cisgender, fat, and thin: all women were included in the ad.

4. Post-prejudice

This is the moment when the brand looks at itself in the mirror, through the lessons learned in this 5-step process. Now, the company can think about potential gaps between what is being said and what is being done, fixing any shortfalls.

In a campaign launched in March 2017, Skol asked female illustrators to recreate its publicity posters — which had previously objectified women — updating them to modern expectations. By accepting its past mistakes and committing to change, not only does the company show that its attitude has evolved, but it also invites society to question itself. A company gains power whenever a marketing campaign is followed by a real change in its corporate policy.

5. Continuous support

As already mentioned, the vast majority of activists work voluntarily, without a salary or any kind of fixed compensation. If a brand really wants to get involved with activism, it should help to continuously support and fund the organizations or groups fighting for the causes addressed by the company. Just as it is widely known that corporations lobby to have their demands met by governments, it is about time they started sponsoring those who work to maintain their rights. That’s what we call a good-hearted attempt to balance social karma.

Given the recent scandals involving companies and the government, this is the perfect time for brands to rethink and to establish a more transparent and honest relationship with their communities.

Taking a stand is urgent. If the world seems chaotic, we need to create tools and learning processes in which everyone — governments, corporations, people — can evolve their attitude in society. Supporting political or behavioral causes is making a difference; it only takes sensitivity and a desire to take the first step.

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Go further

School of Activism

The School of Activism was founded in 2012 to strengthen activist groups through creativity and information. The website contains many useful and enriching resources. The school also offers in-person training sessions.

Sex doesn’t sell any more, activism does

Big businesses are aware that activism sells. Guilty for the ills of this world, brand activism is also synonymous with convenience for consumers, who feel they are doing something to improve the world without making sacrifices.

Why do brands think they can be agents for social change?

The spirit of civil engagement has become a marketing opportunity. But corporate social responsibility has existed for years, and not necessarily through philanthropy. The fact is that brands will only pick the ethical choice if it also happens to be the most profitable one.


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