Evolution or revolution? The rise of activist brands

The idea of conscious consumerism is very much working its way into the mainstream. As many as 66 per cent of consumers say they're willing to pay more for sustainable brands, choosing to ‘vote with their wallet' and make their voice heard.

And so, inevitably, purpose-hungry consumers are being met by a class of companies whose brand identity and story is all about taking a stand. These ‘activist brands’ are not only communicating USPs and product benefits, but shedding just as much light on the ‘why’ that lives behind them.

Among this class of companies are four brands which stand out as sitting squarely in the new and fertile space where marketing and campaigning intersect. They explain how they’re telling their brand story, and what this means for growing not just a customer-base, but a movement.

Bulb: growing at the roots

Bulb is a renewable energy company based in East London. They are building a community of customers (or ‘members’) who care as much about fuelling their home with green energy as they do about affordability and decent customer service. And with 200,000 members (and counting), they’ve clearly hit on something.

“Einstein’s definition of madness is to do the same thing and expect a different result - so we definitely wanted it to be different”, Bulb’s co-founder, Hayden Wood, tells me. “We very deliberately said that we do not want this to be like an energy company”. Divorcing themselves from the norms of the Big Six was crucial. This has meant reimagining everything from the operations through to the pricing model and customer service.

It has also, of course, meant taking an alternative route to building brand awareness. Bulb’s referral scheme is a weighty one: £50 for both parties every time a member brings a friend on board. This means Bulb bypass the hefty advertising spend that other brands commit to, and instead keep money in the community. Wood explains: “We don’t channel our customers’ money into expensive advertising and the pockets of large media owners. We’re so much happier to be spending marketing money on our members.” The result is a grassroots model of growth, one based on trust and not on persuasion, gimmicks, or marketing sleight of hand.

Ecosia: connecting the dots

Berlin-based company Ecosia has created a search engine that plants trees. Users install a free browser extension, and search advertising revenue is channelled into tree planting projects around the world. With 5.5 million users, and 15 million trees planted, the Ecosia mission is very much underway.

But motivating people to change their online search behaviour - particularly given the ubiquity of Google - isn’t without its challenges. Staring into the blue light of a laptop screen and clicking on search results will always feel a far cry from the grubby-handed reality of tree planting. “Every day, people ask us: ‘what do the trees actually look like?’”, Ecosia’s Chief Communications Officer, Jacey Bingler, tells me. “They say, ‘it’s great that you publish business reports, but anyone can come up with a bunch of numbers. Have you ever visited the planting sites yourself?’ So that’s one of the most important parts of what we do - connecting people with the impact they’re having.”

For Ecosia, this means storytelling. Their social media feeds are filled with before-and-after photos, #treehero features, and interviews with local families and farmers. It’s critical, Bingler says, that their footage and photos are raw and real. That means sacrificing cinematic mastery to bring people a bit closer: “We would rather invest in trees than in fancy footage. You can tell that sometimes the pictures are a bit wobbly or the sound isn’t always perfect, but we’d rather that than separating people from the impact they’re having through several layers of post-production”. By authentically bringing their mission to life, Ecosia’s brand has forged a global movement that’s cutting through climate-change paralysis and motivating millions of people to take action.

Oatly: making a statement

Oatly makes milk from Swedish oats. Their dairy-free alternative is available in 20 countries across Europe and Asia, offering a healthier and more environmentally sustainable way to drink milk. The idea was a fringe one when the business started in the 1990s, but public awareness has caught up - putting Oatly at the forefront of the plant-based food movement.

For the team at Oatly, the mission was about more than creating a great product and getting it on supermarket shelves. Sourcing, quality and flavour are all critical, of course - but the positive impact of their product is reinforced by a clear stance on the problem that Oatly’s milk exists to counter. Speaking to eatbigfish, Oatly’s Creative Director John Schoolcraft describes how “it really became about Oatly contributing to a plant based society, or for us to at least encourage steps in that direction.”

Not only does their packaging throw out category convention - there’s no sign of milk-pouring imagery or clean white colour palettes - but Oatly challenge the very limits of what a brand can say and do. Their Bigfoot ad, which ran in the Guardian, outlined company beliefs about planet vs profit, the food system and equality.

“These are some very political statements”, Schoolcraft says. “Brands don’t do that. But we find that as our beliefs are around nutritional health and sustainability, we’re able to talk quite honestly because we’re not bullshitting. Of course we want to sell our product, but we want to challenge the norms at the same time, and that’s bigger.” Instead of quietly getting on with distributing and selling their positive-impact product, Oatly have used the product to create a platform from which to campaign. These unapologetic statements of belief have meant that the brand has become much more than a label - it’s become a fearless voice, communicating with shoppers about issues that matter.

Escape the City: whose brand is it anyway?

Escape the City is a global community of career changers and entrepreneurs, based in London. They’re on a mission to wake up the working world to doing work that matters to them, and their rallying cry to ‘do something different’ has brought over 300,000 people to their alternative job board, and to community events and programmes in 22 cities across the globe.

Escape consider themselves a community first and a business second, and wanted their brand to reflect that. “The whole point of Escape is that it’s not about us”, explains Dom Jackman, Escape’s co-founder. “Our goal is to help people make a change, to launch their business idea or move into work that makes them feel alive every day. We’re here to facilitate that, to make it easier for people to find the support and tools and opportunities that make it possible”.

The brand represents an idea - one that is shared and activated by every ‘escapee’ that comes on board. Which is why Escape’s brand identity was built to be community-owned. “We created this logo that’s like a frame, which anyone’s escape story can fit into”, Jackman continues. “It’s all about being ‘DIY’ - so really simple, and not very perfect - which is the opposite of the polished, rigid, official corporate brands that we’re representing an alternative to”. The idea of escaping - and the belief that ‘different is possible’ - is one that can be picked up and played with by anyone who wants to be part of it.

Activist brands, then, are all about blurring boundaries: between usership and ownership, and between purchase and positive impact. And where the boundaries aren’t being blurred, they’re being pushed, stretched, or altogether ignored. These organisations are showing what marketing can look like when the norms of brand advertising - and even the edges of brand identity - are challenged. The natural evolution of brand marketing is starting, it seems, to look rather like revolution.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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