Track 1.1: The Dark Side of Brand Activism: Conflict, Hate and Democracy
Nearly two-thirds of consumers expect brands to have a social purpose and align their behaviours accordingly (Accenture, 2018; Edelman 2018). As a result, brand activism has had a considerable impact on the world of branding, with more and more marketers repositioning their brands as “moral actors promoting social, legal, business, economic, political and environmental reform” (Sibai, Mimoun and Boukis 2021, 1). Marketing theory and practice have largely hailed brand activism as the long-awaited awakening of brands to their moral and socio-political responsibilities heralding a new branding frontier (Sarkar and Kotler 2018). Yet, brand activism is, by and large, a conflict-laden practice, with activist brands taking a stand on controversial, political, sensitive, and moral issues, fuelling existing controversies and creating new ones (Sibai, Mimoun and Boukis, 2020; Vredenburg et al. 2020), frequently based on pre-existing consumer beliefs, identities, values or political positions (see for example Bhagwat et al. 2020; Garg and Saluja 2022). Holt (2006) alerts us to such a possibility, framing iconic brands as ideological parasites. As a result, brand activism is replete with behaviours promoting division, radicalization, and hate between citizen-consumers, potentially endangering democracy. Consider, for example, Duke Cannon (https://dukecannon.com/) a men’s personal care brand ‘for hard-working American men’, or the White Rhino athletic club fashion brand, which supports through its products and communications, “total rejection of the decaying modern society and the absolute assertion of masculinity, identity and brotherhood”, or the media brand Breitbart which discredits established scientific knowledge and promotes arguably ‘fake-news’ and conspiracy theories. Lush, likewise, notorious for its consistent woke activism, promoted, through its simplistic spycop campaign, unnecessary distrust of the police. Meanwhile, seemingly harmless activism-flavoured campaigns like Gillette’s attempt to engage with toxic masculinity triggered highly polarized debates rather than constructive dialogue and deliberation. Together, these examples indicate that brand activism is more than a marketing gimmick, a strategic fad, or a benign if opportunistic attempt to maximize profit. Brand activism can promote “cultures of humiliation” and “shame” (Brown 2018) and foster conflict-based divided, polarized, and/or radicalised markets and societies (Ulver 2021).
In its exploration of the dark side of brand activism, this track could therefore investigate questions such as (1) when and how do activist brands promote hate or dialogue and mutual understanding when taking a stance and fuelling controversies? (2) how do regressive and woke brands shape dynamics of distrust, division, and hate? (3) how do small/niche, national, and global activist brands promote polarisation and radicalization among citizen-consumers? Answering such questions is essential if we want to ensure activist brands can deliver on their commitment to consumers to build a better society. As the road to hell is paved with good intentions and conflicts easily escalate, marketers, consumers and policymakers need to develop a better understanding of when and why today’s conflict-focused brand activism becomes anti-social and dangerous. Like most questions revolving around conflict, violence, and value-creation, these are difficult questions to answer, requiring a broad cross-disciplinary body of knowledge and access to specific data.
• Debating the dark side of brand activism across marketing theory and practice
• Bringing together participants with different expertise to collectively work toward publishing a research article.
• Working towards developing a short white paper to disseminate to practitioners in the branding profession. This white paper will be developed based on academic research.
• Developing open-access informative videos which could be used in university curriculums. This may take the form of a presentation of infographics or a series of short videos (3-5 minutes). This content is likely to spin off from the industry white paper.
In terms of participation, we aim to create a heterogeneous track team composed of academics and practitioners. Hence this track is open to both academic applicants and external stakeholders. Furthermore, we would welcome the participation of one doctoral candidate or junior researcher working on a TCR-related area.
For queries related to this track please email: Simon Blyth, firstname.lastname@example.org
To apply to this track, please email a Research Vision to Simon Blyth, email@example.com
Track participants will start collaborating prior to the conference with the aims of (a) specifying a theoretical angle for the theorization of the dark side of activism (b) establishing a meaningful research design to investigate the dark side of activism. Each participant should allocate at least 10 days to complete the pre-conference preparation. The preparation will involve (1) participating in six online meetings for alignment and coordination. Day and time for each meeting will be collaboratively selected to meet all track members’ schedules (2) defining key readings relevant to the track and familiarizing oneself with them (3) developing a roadmap and detailed outline of the research project (4) collecting initial data if track members determine that collecting some prior to the conference is necessary.
Day 1: Monday, June 19, 2023
Morning session: small group discussion in sub-teams to develop the different sections of the article in alignment with the pre-conference work.
Afternoon session: synthesis of key achievement and brainstorm about next steps to resolve remaining issues related to the theory and methodology. Begin preparation of the presentation.
Day 2: Tuesday, June 20, 2023
Morning session: continue the work initiated the day before, with a focus on specifying the precise task of the coming months for each member in relation to the development of academic and practice-oriented publications.
Afternoon session: present the outcomes of the track and main research projects.
Optional Day 3: Wednesday, June 21, 2023
We have the option to extend our stay by one day to continue our collaboration. We will define this day’s programme closer to the date, based on the number of team members present on that day.
Post Conference Plans
The post-conference work will be output focused, with a particular focus on three types of outputs:
Academic publication: The participants brought together through the track will collectively work toward publishing a research article. This is likely to be the conference’s partner special issue if available, or else a relevant marketing journal like Journal of Business Research or Journal of Public Policy and Marketing
Industry white paper: A short white paper will be developed and disseminated to practitioners in the branding profession. This white paper will be developed based on the academic research.
TCR curriculum content: open-access informative videos which could be used in university curriculums. This may take the form of a presentation of infographics or a series of short videos (3-5 minutes). This content is likely to spin off from the industry white paper.
The conference track co-chairs will continue to act as project managers in the post-conference time, setting deadlines, check in with participants, and ensuring regular progress.
Accenture (2018). To affinity and beyond: From me to we, the rise of the purpose-led brand.
Bhagwat, Y., Warren, N. L., Beck, J. T., & Watson IV, G. F. (2020). Corporate sociopolitical activism and firm value. Journal of Marketing, 84(5), 1–21.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York: Random House.
Edelman. (2018). The new brand democracy. Available at: https://www.edelman.com/post/the‐newbrand‐democracy
Garg, N., & Saluja, G. (2022). A Tale of Two “Ideologies”: Differences in Consumer Response to Brand Activism. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 7(3), 325–339.
Holt, D.B. (2006). Jack Daniel’s America: Iconic brands as ideological parasites and proselytizers Journal of Consumer Culture. 6(3):355-377.
Sarkar, C., & Kotler, P. (2018). Brand activism: From purpose to action. Idea Bite Press
Sibai, O., Mimoun, L., & Boukis, A. (2021). Authenticating brand activism: Negotiating the boundaries of free speech to make a change. Psychology and Marketing, 38(10), 1651–1669.
Vredenburg, J., Kapitan, S., Spry, A., & Kemper, J. A. (2020). Brands taking a stand: Authentic brand activism or woke washing? Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 39(4), 444–460.
Ulver, S. (2021). The conflict market polarizing consumer culture(s) in counter-democracy. Journal of Consumer Culture.
Track Chair Bios
Simon Blyth is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bristol Business School. He researches brand purpose strategy and brand activism as well as marketing practitioner/academia boundaries and interactions. Simon obtained his PhD from the Southampton University. He then worked in consumer science and research, marketing and design innovation at Unilever and IDEO before returning to higher education. He has acted as a consultant to a variety of organisations (for-profit and not-for-profit). His latest publication is Adrian Flint and Simon Blyth (2021) Facilitating genuine community participation: Can development learn from design?, Development Studies Research, 8(1)
Olivier Sibai is a Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. Olivier completed his PhD at Aston University, Birmingham, and has held visiting scholar positions in HEC Paris, Bayes business school (formerly Cass), and EM Lyon. His research interests revolve around social marketing and transformative consumer research, with a particular focus on market-related violence and brand activism. Olivier’s work has been published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Psychology & Marketing and Academic of Management Learning and Education. His work has been funded by the Wellcome Foundation and cited in the Conversation, the World Economic Forum, and Les Echos.
Mario Campana is a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bristol Business School. He obtained his PhD from Bayes Business School (formerly Cass). His research interests lie within consumer culture theory and look at three consumer research domains: (1) materiality, (2) equity, diversity, and inclusion, focusing LGBTQ+ themes, and (3) alternative modes of market exchange. His work has been published in internationally recognised journals such as the Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Journal of Macromarketing, and International Journal of Consumer Studies. Part of his work has been funded by Innovate UK.