Politics and activism will dominate retail in 2017. By Mathew Dixon

Much has already been made of President Trump’s first few weeks in the Oval Office. However, an unexpected side effect of his early policies has been to become a catalyst for socially aware marketing. While some brands have rushed to reinforce their genuine credentials of inclusiveness and their diverse workforce, others have been blacklisted by the growing #GrabYourWallet campaign for perceived allegiances to Trump.

It is clear a major change is afoot. Welcome to uber-politicised retail. Forget Sex. Activism is what will make or break a brand in 2017.

The momentum of activism as a marketing tool has been building for some time. Diversity is rightly being championed as a fundamental part of business philosophy, rather than the token gesture of yesteryear. Employees now demand that their place of work has a greater purpose than just profit. But how can marketing teams build successful campaigns that are genuinely rooted in promoting their product and a better world whilst not being seen as cynical opportunists, exploiting the fevered public opinion of the moment?

Casualties of pinning political colours to the mast are piling up already. Tom Ford strongly vocalised his support for Hilary Clinton, a move that saw the Wynn Las Vegas hotel immediately remove his products, a decision President Trump was only too happy to endorse. Likewise, when New Balance’s head of public affairs, Matthew LeBretton appeared to back Trump, consumers swamped Twitter with images of them burning their sneakers. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank described Trump as “a real asset for the country” and was rewarded with  #BoycottUnderArmour trending across all channels.

It is clear a major change is afoot, “Companies are nervous,”…

“Companies are nervous,” said Andrew Gilman, chief executive of the crisis communications firm CommCore Consulting Group. “They have playbooks on what to do if there is a product recall or if the C.E.O. has a heart attack,” he added. “Now they have a different chapter on how to deal with a tweet from the President.”1

The polarising nature of President Trump’s policies have allowed corporate marketers an opportunity to publicly reinforce their company brand image as modern and inclusive. Soon after Trump issued his executive order on immigration, CEO’s of several companies such as Adidas, Nike and Starbucks published open letters to their staff (which were shared extensively on social media) to clarify their stance on immigrant workers and praise the essential contributions they make. Tech leaders including Google, Apple and Facebook then united to co-author a letter to Trump arguing that “a blanket suspension is not the right approach”

The Trump travel ban also prompted a raft of public company donations to good causes. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky tweeted that it was providing free accommodation to anyone no longer granted access to the US, while Uber created a $3m legal defence fund that will help their drivers with immigration issues. Google donated $2 million to refugee causes, and asked staff to engage and match the donation.

In contrast, the luxury sector was deafeningly quiet, prompting Business of Fashion Editor Imran Ahmed to launch the #tiedtogether campaign and asked the “global fashion community, to make a clear statement in support of solidarity, human unity and inclusiveness” by wearing a white bandana. Ahmed was clear that this was a not a political statement, but a humanitarian one and encouraged donations to American Civil Liberties Union and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Paul Dillinger, head of global innovation at Levi Strauss & Co, predicts 2017 will usher in more politically-motivated product consumption:

“Voting doesn’t just happen every two years in November. People are starting to realise that every dollar they spend is a vote: a public demonstration of their values. Products, like politicians, represent a set [of] values.” 2

The real challenge is how much to actually promote the philanthropic aspect to a campaign…

The real challenge around activism marketing is how much to actually promote the philanthropic aspect to a campaign – how much can you tell everyone how generous you are, without it looking insincere? But likewise, what is the point of making a grand gesture or donation and not letting the world know about it? After all, a business has to sell product at the end of the day. The answer probably comes from how deeply embedded these values are within the company culture.

Take Forevermark – As part of The De Beers Group they have been trailblazers in building activism into their core business model. Given the vast scale of their mines, it is vital that they invest in the surrounding environment to benefit local people. For every hectare of land used for mining, five hectares is set aside for nature conservation. An example of this is a game park near a mine in Botswana, home to over a thousand animals and a cheetah conservation field unit. 3

Support is also given to building a series of enterprise development funds, which create jobs in industries such as farming, jewellery, design, food distribution and other sectors in countries such as South Africa and Botswana. In 2014, over a third of the people who benefited directly from that funding were women.

Costantino Papadimitriou, Senior Vice President, Brand Strategy at Forevermark, reinforces this philosophy by saying:

“Luxury is no longer just about exquisite materials, perfect production quality and superb creativity. Luxury is the reassurance that the brand behaves consciously, lives up to its values, and offers a deeper and more meaningful experience for consumers” 4

Products, like politicians, represent a set of values.

A natural home for activism is the Gen Z consumer. Although not necessarily a luxury customer yet, they are being aggressively courted by brands to ensure they are in the future. Socially aware marketing taps into their agenda of positively changing the world.

According to a report by Fuse, 85% of Gen Z believe companies have an obligation to help solve social problems, so why not divert marketing budget away from traditional methods into supporting good causes as a potent way of engaging with this demographic? 5

The report from Fuse contains even more compelling evidence of the power of activism influencing Gen Z. After learning a brand supports a social cause or is socially responsible; 85% Trust the brand more, 84% would purchase the brand’s products and 82% would recommend that brand to friends or family.

Back in 2015, Kanye West told Dazed magazine. “I’m not a celebrity, I’m an activist,” 6 It sounded like just another hollow soundbite. But in 2017 activism is serious business. Outdoor brand Patagonia sums it up pretty well by saying, “the protection and preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours. It’s the reason we’re in business and every day’s work.”

2017 will see many others follow suit.

Mathew Dixon is a Director at Hudson Walker International


1.  The New York Times. Shopping Becomes a Political Act in the Trump Era. http://nyti.ms/2lgwLeS
2. Positive Luxury. 2017 Predictions for the Luxury Industry http://bit.ly/2lOMtM0
3. Positive Luxury. 2017 Predictions for the Luxury Industry http://bit.ly/2lOMtM0
4. Positive Luxury. 2017 Predictions for the Luxury Industry http://bit.ly/2lOMtM0
5. Fuse Marketing. Your Future Consumer’s Views on Social Activism and Cause Marketing and How It Differs from What Millennials Think http://bit.ly/2kJk7So
6 Dazed. Kanye West: ‘I’m not a celebrity, I’m an activist’ http://bit.ly/2kJoUTH