Brand Activist or Brand Terrorist?
By Sandra Bauman and Mary Aviles
For the purposes of this post, we’d like to define the following terms–brand terrorism and brand activism–in slightly different context than they’ve been used in the past. Brand terrorism is just what it sounds like: individuals or groups whose purpose is malicious, whose aim is to hurt a brand(s). Brand terrorists are typically past or current customers harboring some resentment (usually because their dissatisfaction went unchecked and then boiled over). Social media is an ideal platform from which they spread their negative word-of-mouth.
In that vein, brand activists are those individuals or groups who rally around a brand-related ’cause.’ Their efforts to speak up or act out typically stem from their past (or current) fierce brand loyalty. These are typically a brand’s most avid supporters. And their efforts are designed to hold brands to their promises or to higher standards. Their ‘demands’ usually have some basis in the common good.
A few weeks ago, we blogged about brands whose actions were admirable, thus inspiring general warm fuzzies. This week we’d like to consider two recent brands whose activities generated widespread brand activism. Interestingly, both Abercrombie & Fitch and Disney found themselves involved in respective perfect storms with common elements: corporate definitions of beauty + primary demographics of children & young people + widely-networked media influencers (many of whom just happened to be mothers and women) = Yikes!
The first, infamous example, concerned 7-year-old comments from Abercrombie & Fitch’s CEO whereby he defined Abercrombie & Fitch’s target market as the “cool kids” and he went on to say that the brand intentionally excluded uncool, fat people (paraphrasing). While we often hear pundits proclaim that ‘any coverage is good coverage,’ we would bet #Fitchthehomeless was not what said pundit had in mind (incidentally, while we appreciate what Greg Karber was trying to do, we tend to agree with this take). What’s particularly interesting to us was both the reach and high level of engagement related to the public outcry. Mike Jefferies’ seven-year-old comments got people so fired up that:
– Greg Karber bothered to make a YouTube video and it went viral almost immediately
– Well-known personalities like Ellen took A&F to task (Fitch, Please) in front of national television audiences (in her trademark funny, but classy way)
– Teenagers, including a 17-year-old girl in Illinois–who interpreted Abercrombie’s position as a form of bullying–staged protests that garnered significant national media attention
Disney’s Merida Makeover also attracted significant media attention. To recap, consumers became alarmed when they noticed distinct changes in the appearance of the character Merida from the movie Brave. The makeover resulted in a more demure, sparkly, rendition–a treatment more in line with the rest of the Disney Princess product line, but which many categorized as more sexy. This hit a nerve because Disney had very successfully marketed Merida as ‘not your typical princess’ for the movie release. Merida was very carefully positioned as daring, athletic, disobedient, and defiant. Of particular significance, she turned down her three suitors and–though she did not marry–still lived happily ever after. Influencers rallied around the Keep Merida Brave campaign, started by A Mighty Girl, garnering 200,000+ signatures on their petition in no time. Merida’s creator Oscar-winning Brave writer and director Brenda Chapman even voiced her disapproval.
From the brands’ perspectives, we can see how these activists could seem more like terrorists. Media wildfires such as these can have far-reaching and severe negative brand impact. But, using our definitions above, these people were not seeking destruction or chaos. In fact, at least in Disney’s case, it was their love for the character and their high expectations for the Disney brand that fueled their actions. In both of these cases, the activists had very clear–and worthy–goals in mind. A Mighty Girl wanted assurances in writing (in other words, a brand promise):
“Unless we have an official statement from Disney that they will respect the integrity of this character in the future, we cannot be assured that future and perhaps even more offensive renditions of Merida will not continue to appear or become established as her iconic image as part of the Disney Princess collection.”
And, Cali Linstrom, a Chicagoland teen who protested A&F, wanted to hold the brand to higher standards:
“[CEO] Jeffries issued an apology and Linstrom was granted a sit-down meeting with some of the company’s top executives. There, she outlined her vision for a public-service campaign that ‘focuses on self-love and self-acceptance,’ and asked Abercrombie to empower youths rather than feed into today’s ‘image-obsessed society.'”
Brands are comprised of people and people are fallible. They don’t always have clear direction on what customers want from them, though functions like social media listening should enable them to at least be aware of what’s being said. But, when customers take the time to speak, brands must do more than listen. They must engage appropriate to the situation. And, while the first instinct is not to negotiate with terrorists, recognizing when it’s actually activism and listening to the voice of the customer (as all good brands should do) could lead to a stronger brand having done so.
This is a terrific post, Sandra. And I agree — brands must not only monitor and listen to what’s being said about them, they need to either either engage with customers where appropriate and/or make sure their concerns are addressed in terms of product development and marketing and advertising initiatives. Consumers aren’t going to get any less vocal, and the brands who pay attention to what matters to customers and who run their companies in a way that respects that will do well. The others — they can expect more media firestorms.