Track 1.14: The Rise of Brand Activism: A Critical Perspective on the Power of Brands

Brand activism occurs when brands communicate or act on their views on issues as widespread as political candidates, immigration, racial equity and #BlackLivesMatter, LQBTQIA+ rights, voting, abortion, gun laws and vaccines (Vredenburg et al., 2020). Such activism arises in response to stakeholders seeking corporate support for socio-political causes, but goes beyond support for widely agreed-upon topics such as breast cancer research or heart disease charities (Moorman, 2020). Whereas corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities are generally viewed as beneficial by society (i.e., donations to charitable organizations; Wettstein & Baur, 2016), brand activism involves adopting a non-neutral stance on potentially divisive social issues that the public disagrees on what’s morally right or appropriate. This renders corporate socio-political activism and brand activism messaging as inherently controversial (Moorman, 2020; Vredenburg et al., 2020, Bhagwat et al., 2020). 
Activist brands show a willingness to alienate one audience as they court another segment more receptive to their activist stance. That is, as Bhagwat et al. (2020, p. 3) note, a brand “risks backlash from stakeholders with opposing views.” Notably, the process creates a churn of polarizing content on social media and the news media. Opposing consumers boycott and spread negative word of mouth while supporting consumers react by amplifying the brand message, increasing loyalty, and spreading positive word of mouth (Mukherjee & Althuizen, 2020; Ulver, 2021). Stakeholder demand for brands to take a stand on controversial socio-political topics is becoming a point of parity for many global brands and even local brands (Hoppner & Vadappepatt, 2019; Vredenburg et al., 2020). 


The risk of negative consumer outcomes due to brand activism warrant concern and investigation. Seeking relevance, brands clarify their own socio-political values to win user attention, which is the new digital currency in this crowded marketplace (Bhagwat et al., 2020; Kapitan et al., 2020; Vredenburg et al., 2020;). Data-led brands make decisions that are relevant to certain audiences, while alienating others and spurring deeper partisan divides (Bhagwat et al., 2020; Vredenburg et al., 2020. This polarization leads to issues that could or should be viewed as bipartisan (e.g., eliminating school shootings) to become divisive when perceived “out-groups” are pushing an agenda counter to an in-group (e.g., gun control). Consumers can become caught in social media networked loops that are built to monetize conflict and create filter bubbles (Ulver, 2021; Lazer, 2015; Zuboff, 2019). This can result in choicelessness and conformity, as Hoang et al. (2021) note that consumers can experience incompletion, saturation, and alienation in digital settings. Fraser and co-authors (2022) further find detrimental effects on both physical and mental health. “The more distant an individual feels politically from the average voter in their state, the worse health outcomes he or she reports” (Fraser et al. 2022; pg 1). This tension highlights the need for further theoretical insight and empirical validation for what role marketers, marketing, and monetization play in brand activism’s effects on consumers. 


Further, the role of companies in our political and legal systems is being renegotiated. It is unclear what role companies should play in shaping broader legislation (such as immigration, women’s reproductive rights, and environmental protections). How much are companies responsible for the actions of their governments or for ensuring their public stances are responsible (e.g., brands such as Mcdonald's exiting from Russia due to war in Ukraine)? Literature is also lagging on the internal organizational effects of brand activism. Employee wellbeing is at risk as firms, and B2B brands embrace activism that is divisive (Reitz, Higgins & Day-Duro 2021). Finally, scholars are just beginning to grapple with questions around regulation and policy regarding brand activism and “woke washing” or adopting inauthentic activism that is not supported by values or practice (Vredenburg et al., 2020). Does activism need to be regulated, what could it look like, and how could it work? Politicians across the globe are beginning to explore this issue and are proposing legislation to limit corporations' ability to act in this space (Jivani 2022; Vanderford 2022). Brand activism isn’t limited to consumer-facing brands as B2B firms also act out their purpose and values on partisan issues (Kapitan et al., 2020; Sarkar & Kotler, 2020). This activism is implemented by the firm in relation to its business partners within the supply chain (e.g., distributors, retailers, clients, buyers, etc.) and takes the form of actions such as firing channel partners or terminating licensing contracts (Kapitan et al., 2020). 


Formally, this track invites submissions that wish to explore many related angles, including and beyond those described here. This track’s co-chairs seek scholarly ideas for theoretical contributions, research questions, methodology, and practical outcomes that can help steer these evolving practices in the best direction for social impact. We will hold place for junior scholars and rising PhD students (as well as experienced mid-career and senior academics). We seek a mix of Ph.D. students, early career, mid-career, and well-established and titled academics to help us tackle the challenges of brand activism, alongside its potential power. We seek approximately 8-10 collaborators in total. The goal is to build a group that sees specific issues, problems, solutions, interventions, and issues of broader macro-level and social marketing to build on the nascent field of brand activism.


Tentative Track Plan

Pre Conference

  • We would ask each participant to focus on a subtopic around brand activism, in consultation with track chairs. 
  • Each participant would then conduct a literature review of around 8-10 papers that explore the development of the topical area and its application to, challenge of, or contribution to the area of brand activism. 
  • The goal is for each participant to present key findings from the literature, along with any thinking and reflection on this topical area during the conference.
  • Participants would be encouraged to draw figures or show a framework of how their particular topical area links together. 
  • The co-chairs will also organize a WhatsApp group to facilitate sharing of content on brand activism, from mainstream news to deep reads, videos, and tweets. 



Day 1 Morning

  • Aimed at giving each participant time to discuss the particular topic they have researched, along with sharing any relevant findings and future research ideas. This is a roundtable discussion, versus a formal presentation.
  • Participants will be encouraged to bring along handouts with summaries and/or visuals to help serve as shared dialog. In this session, we seek to unpack the pieces of the puzzle and lay them all out on the shared tabletop together.

Day 1 Afternoon

  • Different workgroups will be asked to begin to create new puzzles together from the assembled information. 
  • We will present back ideas to the larger group about the current framework of the topics chosen
  • These groups would also propose any areas of new or emerging research that warrant further exploration.

Day 2 Morning

  • The goal is to agree upon and refine the big picture puzzle we have created – as a conceptual framework 
  • We will then feed back into the larger TCR gathering at day’s end.

Day 2 Afternoon

  • We will develop our shared action plan for post-conference, organizing teams and writing deadlines for (1) the big-picture puzzle conceptual paper as well
  • We will also run a shared future-research session to help facilitate groups to develop (2) targeted empirical work driven by mutual interests in a particular topical thrust, along with overlapping and complementary empirical abilities.

Post Conference

  1. The goal is to build two sets of knowledge from this conference. 
    1. First, we seek to develop a rigorous conceptual paper that will outline avenues to inform and guide future empirical and theory-building work. This will involve all members of the track.
    2. Second, we also seek to connect subgroups of scholars who will investigate some of these issues empirically and carry on work beyond the TCR group. This will be determined by strengths and interests among attendees during the conference.
  • Work to set timeline to create a draft conceptual paper manuscript
  • Submit the finalized paper to a journal


For queries related to this track please email: Sommer Kapitan,

To apply to this track, please email a Research Vision to Sommer Kapitan,



Bhagwhat, Y., Warren, N.L., Beck, J.T. & Watson, G.F. (2020). Corporate socio-political activism and firm value. Journal of Marketing, 84 (5), 1-21.
Hoppner, J.J. & Vadakkepatt, G.G. (2019). Examining moral authority in the marketplace: A conceptualization and framework. Journal of Business Research, 95, 417-427.
Fraser, T., Aldrich, D. P., Panagopoulos, C., Hummel, D., & Kim, D. (2022). The harmful effects of partisan polarization on health. PNAS Nexus, 1 (1), 1.
Kapitan, S., Spry, A., Vredenburg, J. & Kemper, J. (2020). Brand activism is moving up the supply chain — corporate accountability or commercial censorship? The Conversation, Dec. 11. Accessed at
Moorman, C. (2020). Commentary: Brand activism in a political world. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 39 (4), 388-392.

Mukherjee, S. & Althuizen, N. (2020). Brand activism: Does courting controversy help or hurt a brand? International Journal of Research in Marketing, 37, 772-788.
Reitz, Higgins & Day-Duro (2021). The wrong way to respond to employee activism. Harvard Business Review, February 26. Accessed at:
Sarkar, C. & Kotler, P. (2020). B2B brand purpose: The coming backlash. Feb 18. Accessed at
Ulver, S. (2021). The conflict market: Polarizing consumer culture(s) in counter-democracy. Journal of Consumer Culture.
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.
Wettstein, F. & Baur, D. (2016). Why should we care about marriage equality?: political advocacy as a part of corporate responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 138 (2), 199–213.
Zuboff, S. (2019). Surveillance capitalism and the challenge of collective action. New Labour Forum, 28 (1), 10-29. 

Track Chair Bios

Sommer Kapitan, senior lecturer in marketing, Auckland University of Technology. Sommer first got the dialogical conference bug as a TCR participant. In 2015, she co-chaired a Wicked Problems dialogical conference track on fast fashion at RMIT in Melbourne. These dialogical conferences built meaningful scholarly collaborations and led to some of the most impactful papers on her CV (publications in Journal of Business Research and Journal of Social Marketing). In addition to foundational work on authentic brand activism and B2B brand activism, Sommer has explored the roles of sustainable marketing and social influencers in such outlets as Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Journal of Consumer Affairs, and Psychology & Marketing.


Jessica Vredenburg, senior lecturer in marketing, Auckland University of Technology, Jessica’s primary research focuses on contemporary branding issues including foundational research on authentic brand activism, transformative branding, B2B, and NPO brand activism. Related research topics of interest include cancel culture and strategic sport marketing and sponsorship. Jessica is a member of the Editorial Review Board and Impact Taskforce for the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing and has published in top journals including the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, European Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Macromarketing. Jessica also provides expert commentary for The Conversation and regularly contributes to media through TV, radio, and print as a marketing expert.


Katharine Howie, assistant professor, University of Southern Mississippi, Katharine was previously an assistant professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Her research interests are primarily related to brand activism, political orientation, cancel culture, and consumer well-being. Katharine has published research in premier journals such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Product and Brand Management, and others. Additionally, Katharine is on Editorial Board for the Journal of Business Ethics and has provided expert commentary on brand activism for The Conversation.


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