A lot of marketers (and consumers) want to put 2016 in the rear view mirror, but this might also be the year brands found their soul. Only in the midst of great interpersonal conflict do we stop to think how our soul might survive the choices we make, and brand leaders were no exception. Trolls, serial liars, and neo-Nazi neanderthals that want to turn back the wheel of progress challenged brand leaders to not only ask what’s good for their consumers (current and future), but what was just plain old right. Here are three brands and their acts of heroism that made 2016 better than we thought it was.

Only in the midst of great interpersonal conflict do we stop to think how our soul might survive the choices we make, and brand leaders were no exception.


In April, North Carolina passed House Bill 2, a highly controversial law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms in public buildings that do not match their gender identity. The country is divided on this issue according to a recent Pew Study that found half of Americans feel people should only use restrooms assigned to the gender they were born into.

On the NC bill, some brands were explicit that their restrooms were available to all.

“We stand for equality and equity, and strive to make our guests and team members feel accepted, respected and welcomed in our stores and workplaces every day,” said national retailer Target in a press release, in defiance of the hateful legislation. “We believe that everyone — every team member, every guest, and every community — deserves to be protected from discrimination, and treated equally.”

Target’s affirmation of human dignity was rewarded with a right-wing boycott, but Target CEO Brian Cornell held the line. Target announced a $20 million upgrade to its bathrooms to create inclusive options. For that, Target is a hero in Admirable Devil’s book.


Already a B Corp, ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s went beyond empowering a virtual community of brand advocates to gathering them in person in Washington, DC at a rally this Summer. Empower Mint, Ben & Jerry’s latest ice cream, helped the company launch a campaign pushing for a fair and inclusive democracy. The Democracy Awakening 2016 rally brought thousands of people together with over 200 grassroots groups to mobilize protest against growing restrictions on voting rights, and to fight big money in politics (the Voting Rights Act and Citizens United). Partners included Rev. William Barber and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, HeadCount, Demos, Color of Change, Many Rivers to Cross, TurboVote, and 150,000 newly registered voters. The brand founders (Ben & Jerry) were arrested but protest never tasted so sweet.


In October, after a terrible year of police violence against unarmed African Americans, Ben & Jerry’s posted their support of the Black Lives Matter movement in a message using their iconic font along with a statement noting,”All lives do matter. But all lives will not matter until Black lives matter.” While not accompanied by a new flavor, internet activists responded on Twitter with the new hashtag #BenAndJerrysNewFlavor and funny memes involving African American celebrities. This remarkable reaction to me demonstrates how the positive potential of interaction with brand activism and consumers. Who knew consumers would react with dark comedy on such a difficult subject?


It could be agued this one isn’t brand activism – just good management, however it sure reads like brand activism!

Kellogg was not the first company to pull their advertising from alt-right conservative news site Breitbart this year but it was certainly the most visible one. Breitbart executive and now Chief Strategist to President Elect Trump, Steve Bannon was quoted in Mother Jones as saying Breitbart is indeed a platform for the alt-right — the ultraconservative movement associated with white nationalism. Breitbart regularly publishes hate speech disguised as legitimate news. The Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Breitbart as a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.”

Breitbart urged readers and conservatives to retaliate against Kellogg with a boycott. Kellogg’s guidelines state that it won’t place ads in media that “encourages offensive behavior to others, or where the media is not consistent with our product or corporate image.” A company spokesperson said, “In this case, we learned from consumers that ads were placed on Breitbart.com and decided to discontinue advertising there.”

While removing their advertising might just be policy, the fact that Kellogg’s listened to its consumers in the midst of one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern history that has emboldened white supremacists, neo-Nazi’s and nationalists (who are also shoppers) is an act of bravery deserving recognition.

Consumer activist group Sleeping Giants confirms more than 320 companies have blocked their online ads from appearing on Breitbart.com. Sleeping Giants runs a social media campaign that identifies digital ads on Breitbart.com and then through tweets asks the companies directly if they want their ads on a “racist, misogynist, hate-filled” site. They have called out BMW, Audi, Ebay, Nike, among others.


There’s the old adage – if you don’t stand for something, then you stand for nothing. So what are the upsides to being a brand activist, which can surely put a target on your back and potentially alienate some of your consumers? First of all, brands always need to to stand for something (lest they stand for nothing or another brand take the available position). Might as well stand for good things like human rights instead of negative things like bigotry. Two, consumers, we know, reward brands for playing a positive and meaningful role in the world. Numerous studies have proven that brands with purpose outperform their peers who are only interested in profit. Lastly, brand activists provide themselves permission to be hugely creative in how they relate to their customers – and that creates a deeper relationship.

If you think your brand should take a stand in 2017 – learn how at www.admirabledevil.com or visit http://www.wemakegoodtrouble.com for more inspiration.

Joel R. Johnson is co-founder and Chief Strategist at Admirable Devil, a purpose driven ad agency.

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