When Should Brands Engage in Slacktivism?

Michelle Obama #bringbackourgirls
First Lady Michelle Obama joined the chorus demanding that Boko Haram #bringbackourgirls further propelling the movement. Photo via Instagram

Social activism has been in the forefront of the news in the past couple weeks with an outpouring of tweets with the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls and #YesAllWomen.

The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, bringing attention to the 257 girls kidnapped in Nigeria, first appeared on Twitter on April 23 and has been tweeted more than 3.3m times as of May 13.

This past weekend saw the latest permutation of what some critics call ‘slactivism’ with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, which was attached to 1.2 million tweets, peaking at 61,500 tweets on May 25 and used by women and men alike to share their personal stories around male entitlement.

Despite the endless stream of tweets that filled my screen, I couldn’t help but notice how few brands were taking part in any of these conversations. Which made me wonder why that is. Is there room for brands to have a voice, and furthermore, and do businesses have a responsibility to take a stand against what they believe is unjust?

You can’t blame brands for not wanting to always engage in what can be dangerous waters, where the risks often outweighs the rewards. Who can forget @KennethCole’s infamous tweet using the hashtag #Cairo to sell more shoes during the protests in Egypt in 2011? The tweet caused a massive backlash and the brand had no choice but to issue an apology. But not before the avalanche of indignant @ replies calling the company out for its tone deaf attempt to cash in on a deadly serious situation.

Sometimes brands have no choice but to participate in the conversation. When the hashtag #burritosnotbullets started gaining traction, Chipotle listened to their customers and changed their policy from “simply comply[ing] with local laws regarding the open or concealed carrying of firearms” to “respectfully asking that customers not bring guns into our restaurants, unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.”

However, the companies that are stepping up and voicing their beliefs and values for all to see are not as easy to find. One brand that is leading the charge on this front is crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, who have been vociferous about their support for #NetNeutrality.

And their supporters are recognizing them for sticking their neck out.

Companies are increasingly playing a larger role in addressing big social challenges. So when should a brand choose to stay silent and when does it make sense to join a social media movement? Among the key questions to consider, it’s important to evaluate how relevant the cause is to your brand. In Kickstarter’s case, much of their success was due to access to an open and free internet. Their business depended on it and still depends on it, therefore their opinion is not only relevant, its a valuable contribution to the conversation.

It’s also important to scrutinize your objectives for participating in the conversation. Many saw Kenneth Cole’s mis-tweet as a marketing campaign designed to sell more shoes and some even argue that it worked. However, that’s a risky move for most marketers. If your intention is to drive website traffic, there are better ways of doing that.

As long as your goals are to raise awareness around an issue that aligns with your values and where you feel you can have influence, your audience will recognize and reward you for participating.

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