"It definitely makes me feel better about working in advertising.": exploring practitioners' perspectives on brand activism

  • Chaundra Manorome

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


In 2018, Nike claimed, "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything," as it featured activist and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick in its infamous Dream Crazy campaign, aligning itself with the Black Lives Matter movement. This campaign ignited a fierce public debate, with supporters applauding Nike's stance and detractors burning their products in protest. This campaign inspired this research, which explores the roles that advertising creatives play in conceptualising and creating brand activism.

Consumers are found to increasingly trust businesses to address societal issues more than their own governments (Edelman, 2022). Brand activism thus presents a unique convergence of business and social activism. As a novel marketing and advertising strategy, brand activism remains underexplored in both academic and industry literature. While top brands like Nike, Chevrolet, and Lenovo have embraced brand activism, critical scholarship has lagged behind. This dissertation addresses this gap by exploring how advertising practitioners perceive and navigate brand activism, impacting the creative process, client relationships, professional identities and moral responsibilities.

This research uses the Systems Model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) as a guiding framework, examining the domain, the individual, and the field's influence on brand activism. It investigates two primary aspects: (1) the unique characteristics of brand activism from the practitioners' perspectives and (2) its impact on their professional practices and identities. The research data is drawn from semi-structured interviews with twenty senior creative industry professionals and analysed using Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six-step thematic analysis. Key findings highlight that brand activism is now an essential aspect of branding, characterised by its role in driving societal change, the need for purpose, tangible action, the recognition of risk, and proactive practitioner-led motivation. These insights reveal how practitioners shape branding norms and procedures.

In examining the creative process, this dissertation uncovers practitioners' roles as mediators between clients, the public, and the community of the cause, each group representing different actors in the field. This entails managing power dynamics, overcoming development challenges, and maintaining authenticity during brand activism campaigns. Practitioners emerge as moral intermediaries, influencing their clients' moral standing, consumer sentiments, and their own ethical perspectives. Additionally, practitioners' professional identities are impacted as they become catalysts of change and technological intermediaries, leveraging technology for positive societal impact. They play pivotal roles in maximising technology's potential for addressing real-world needs. Ethical considerations also come to the forefront as practitioners experience ‘ethical becoming,’ where personal moral identities evolve. In addition, they are found to use a narrative of authenticity to assess brand activism's ethicality. This interrelation between practitioners' perceptions, ethical considerations, and evolving roles in brand activism defines the dynamic landscape of advertising and brand activism.

In conclusion, this research critically engages with the concept of brand activism from the perspective of advertising practitioners, shedding light on its complex nature and impact. It serves as a valuable contribution to the evolving discourse surrounding brand activism in the advertising industry.
Date of Award6 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorSven Brodmerkel (Supervisor) & Marilyn Mitchell (Supervisor)

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