Viva la corporation!

Who are the real revolutionaries in brand activism?

Brand activism, or belief-driven value marketing to use the adverspeak, where a company positions itself as taking a stand on hot socio-political topics, is not a new phenomenon but is dominating PR strategy in many a boardroom right now. Ordinarily presented through compellingly right-on and emotive copy, ‘radical’ celebrity endorsement, or other disruptive messaging, it is more traditionally attached to entities with a vested interest in such matters: charities, NPO’s, public issue campaigns, but it is increasingly cementing as a recuperative branding device in corporate and consumer goods marketing.

We are all (mostly) alert to the typical devices employed to get us parting with our hard earned paycheques. We are wise to the game, and we can smell it when we are being patronised or misled. The message here is simple, by all means paint a colourful, nourishing picture of how much you care, but do care. Don’t get caught just acting like you do. If a company is going to align itself with certain beliefs we would clearly prefer this to be done in earnest, and not just adopted as a surefire profit-bump based on psychographic insights generated among the algorithmic-basement-super-brains housed at your Edelman’s, Kantar’s, and Nieslen’s of the world.

I was preparing to write something on the process of recuperation for some time, with a specific example in mind that caught my attention because it was so cynically executed – more on this in a moment, but with the industry buzz circulating on the wider phenomenon my horizon broadened. Before I roll on in, I do want to make clear that I’m not at all opposed to corporations acting more conscientiously. Quite the contrary. From the hope that being in a position of power and influence change can happen, and it would be nice, if a little optimistic, to believe that year-end dividends were not all that mattered to a firm. But also from the position that things do actually need to be made, and they need to be pitched and sold, and we are living in a time where not just the demands of a competitive marketplace exist, but also the level of intellectual sophistication we humans demand in how we are spoken to. Advertising is not the devil basically. It is necessary and inevitable, so why should it not be more agreeable?

So, recuperation then. The jumping off point of which is its antonym détournment – used to define a process were counter-cultural messages are delivered by subverting, or sometimes adopting the typical mechanisms of mainstream corporate communication; culture-jamming, brandalism, insert your preferred nomenclature. The typical purpose being to transmit a socio-political message that may run contrary to the dominant media stream, or perhaps sometimes with no loftier ambition than to disrupt, protest or represent anarchic positions, including anti-capitalist sentiment. Recuperation, put simply is a technique whereby modes of communication, or aesthetic conceits typically associated with sub-cultural or radical values, are coopted and used by corporate entities to position themselves as right-on; that they might be prepared to storm some barricades; or at least that they may have partied a little in high school too. Mainly though, it’s to shake off any potentially icky evil-corp stench.

*Read the full editorial in my Tell section, link below: