In the weeks since George Floyd’s killing, as business leaders struggled with how to respond to protests rocking the nation, many looked on with awe and envy at one company that seemed to rise above the rest: Ben & Jerry’s. The ice-cream maker did not sugarcoat its feelings, speaking with authority but also backing up its social media outrage with a detailed plan to dismantle white supremacy.
— Ben & Jerry's (@benandjerrys) June 2, 2020
As the outrage grew over the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and many others at the hands of police officers, the conversation morphed into a larger critique of the future of policing. Ben & Jerry’s again took a defiant stance, publicly embracing the Defund the Police movement.
— Benjamin Dixon (@BenjaminPDixon) June 20, 2020
This boldness was met with some criticism (from every political point of view), but it largely drew vocal cheers from activists and customers alike.
Ben & Jerry’s was praised where so many others were dragged because the company and its leaders had been doing the hard work of racial justice advocacy for decades. It had long put in the effort to fund and build relationships with movement leaders, giving the company a credible platform to use its voice—and be heard—when police violence against Black Americans spilled into the streets yet again.
Unfortunately, far too few companies can back up their words with real action. I’ve had the good fortune of working with some of those that do, such as Patagonia and New Belgium Brewing Company. For these companies, social and environmental advocacy is woven into how they do business.
If the last month has shown us anything, it’s that there are a lot of organizations that desire to emulate Ben & Jerry’s but lack a serious history of working on behalf of causes larger than their own success. There’s no manual, and there are no shortcuts to credibility. But demand for real corporate action on urgent social and environmental issues is growing fast, emanating from employees and consumers alike. Even leaders driven by fear to play it safe know that’s just no longer an option.
So . . . where do you start?
Change your mindset
Successful brand advocacy requires a willingness to build a foundation that’s not driven by PR. I’ve witnessed countless business leaders who equate “doing good” with getting headlines. Forget that notion and be ready to invest real dollars in a movement that doesn’t revolve around you or your bottom line.
Patagonia spent years funding grassroots activists working to protect a wild place known as Bears Ears, in Southeastern Utah, with little or no fanfare. Chances are, you first heard about Bears Ears in 2017 when Patagonia turned its website into an activism hub and sued President Trump, a decision that drove wall-to-wall press coverage but was only possible because the company was already deep in the fight. If you can focus on impact over attention now, the press will cover your efforts with the depth it merits—at a time when you actually deserve it.
Get your house in order
If you want to earn the public’s trust when you speak out, practice what you preach, not through a social impact side project, but with social and environmental responsibility in your core business: product, supply chain, compensation and benefits, diversity, and more. You don’t have to be perfect, but you must be working toward real progress and be willing to be transparent about your journey.
Case in point: The clothing retailer Eileen Fisher publishes a detailed list of every link in its supply chain—information historically guarded as trade secrets—and is proactive in talking about areas that need improvement. This earns the company customer trust and loyalty and gives them the right to challenge the fashion industry’s bad record on sustainability.
(By the way, if your core business hurts the world more than it helps, stop reading here. Advocacy can’t be built on a foundation of exploitation.)
Pick a lane
No company can engage meaningfully on every issue. Companies need to hone an area of focus if they hope to achieve real impact and drive a clear story over time. For Patagonia, it’s saving the planet. The salad chain Sweetgreen has zeroed in on making healthy food more accessible, especially in schools. You should pick a lane that connects clearly to your product and your founding values. And remember, racial equality is not an “issue” unto itself; it intersects with everything.
Shut up and listen
When I work with companies to build advocacy strategies, the first step is always reaching out to front-line activists and inviting them to tell us about their priorities, their needs, and their ideas for how a company can add real value to their movement. Corporations constantly talk only about “what we’re doing.” What you should be doing is honoring and elevating those who have committed their entire lives to an issue, often for little money and less attention. Let them guide you on how to enter their world.
New Belgium has practiced this approach since its founding in 1991. Last year, before launching a campaign designed to bridge the political divide among outdoor lovers, the company consulted extensively with public lands advocacy groups like Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and American Whitewater. This way, the company could be confident its initiative really added value to the movement to protect public lands. The campaign used Fat Tire marketing channels to elevate these nonprofits to millions of customers.
Put skin in the game
At the end of the day, corporations make money, and nonprofits do not. Therefore, I believe any advocacy strategy should be grounded in cash grants, because it allows organizations to spend resources their way. Even better is to consider building a scalable philanthropy model into your business such as donating 1% of sales or equity. This means that you’ll give in good years and bad, and the commitment provides transparency and customer engagement opportunities, because every purchase counts. Finally, it shows you’re in it for the impact, not the good press. (Note: Please be careful with the word “partner” when describing nonprofits. They owe your company nothing, but by supporting their work with no strings attached, they will be more eager to help you, and more likely to validate your contributions to the movement publicly.)
Amplify, amplify, amplify
Once all of these other principles have been adopted, then you’ve earned the right to use your company’s voice and speak out. But rather than spin up your own campaign, you should look to the advocacy groups you fund to identify a key policy issue where you can truly add value, then build a proactive campaign around that. For every groundbreaking Patagonia film, there is a Patagonia grantee advising the team on messaging, calls to action, policy milestones, and more. The same held true with Ben & Jerry’s “Justice ReMix’d” flavor, which created a platform for the Advancement Project on every pint sold. Combine your unique superpowers (creative resources, media budget, audience, and influence) with theirs (expertise, credibility), and you can all celebrate a big win down the road.
These principles are simple, yet getting it right is hard. It requires the diligence to stay focused, a willingness to accept there are no quick wins, and the courage to play the long game.
But Ben & Jerry’s would tell you it’s worth it—for its business, brand, and, most importantly, for the benefit of humankind.
Adam Fetcher is a brand activism and communications consultant based in San Francisco. He formerly worked as global communications director for Patagonia and senior director of brand advocacy for Lyft. He served in the Obama administration in several senior roles, including deputy national press secretary for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and press secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior.