This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Impact Magazine, later reproduced on the MRS website.

By Graeme Trayner

One afternoon back in 2012, Sarah Kavanagh, a teenager in Mississippi, glanced down at a bottle of the soft drink Gatorade.  On the label, she noticed something that struck her as a bit out of place – the odd sounding ingredient ‘brominated vegetable oil’.  Searching online, she found out that the substance was used to make flavourings work, but was alarmed to see the additive was patented as a flame retardant, and could lead – if consumed excessively – to nerve disorders.   

Further enraged by the fact that the substance is banned in the EU and Japan, she then started a petition on the online activism site, calling on PepsiCo – the makers of Gatorade – to withdraw the ingredient.  And this is where the situation rapidly accelerated – her single action as an individual quickly morphed into 200,000 signatures online, and a decision by PepsiCo to withdraw the product. Not content with changing just one food and drinks multinational’s behaviour, she then started a similar petition calling on Coca-Cola to follow suit – which they duly did in May.

Kavanagh’s one-woman campaign is just one example of activism – the flexing of people power on behalf of an issue or cause. It encompasses online swarms that emerge behind a new call to action – as we have seen have globally with the #bringbackourgirls movement; to virtual yet deeply linked communities such as Mumsnet, who have lobbied on a range of issues including ditching the topless models on Page 3 of The Sun, through to more conventional campaigning and single-issue groups, for example Friends of the Earth, Oxfam or UK Uncut.  And we have recently seen new forms of activism emerge in politics, from the Tea Party in the US through to the Pirate Party movement across mainland Europe. 

Looking at this through the lens of commerce,  the economist Noreena Hertz talks of the rise of ‘political shopping’, and trends that we now see as mainstream – organics, Fair Trade, ethical sourcing – were all initially niche causes championed by small, yet committed, groups of campaigners.  Arguably one of the most successful issue-campaigns in recent decades has been the Campaign for Real Ale, which has re-shaped how we, and the drinks industry, think about beer. 

Activists – even if at the starting point they are just one aggrieved teenager in the Deep South – are increasingly able to generate powerful momentum as they are very well positioned to benefit from a set of profound changes in technology, power and influence.  In an environment where there is often default scepticism towards politics and business, causes seen to be people-driven tend to be more trusted, and are viewed as free of spin and hidden agendas.  They derive strength from our ‘narrative bias’, whereby we are more inclined to believe, support and trust the stories of Davids going up against Goliaths, the insurgent against the establishment.  The media also has a natural inclination to emphasise the human element often tied up in activist campaigns, and to treat them with more sympathy and less cynicism.  They are on our side, not working against us.


New forms of technology and communication give a powerful platform for the like-minded to quickly find each other and congregate, and for the rapid mobilisation of sentiment – whether that’s disgruntled commuters amplifying their voice against a train operator via Twitter, or people building up a mass of support through online petition and campaign sites such as Avaaz.  Beyond this, activism needs to be located within the context of our contemporary participatory culture – where we want to share, connect and advocate.  At times, this has been derided as ‘clicktivism’ – where people are seen to make a superficial commitment or statement on an issue, rather than show any deep involvement – but it is engagement nonetheless, and can be the start of a more profound connection.

This poses many challenges to those of us running businesses. In comparison to modern corporations, activists and their groups are much better equipped to deal with the modern public information space – they are in the business of selling ideas which, as former journalist (now CEO of Index on Censorship)  Jodie Ginsberg argues, are “far quicker to promote and globalise than products and services”.  

Campaigner scrutiny, coupled with the free and fast flow of information, also means that the historical divide between ‘consumer’ messaging about products and services, and ‘corporate’ communications about the company’s financial set up and employment structures becomes increasingly meaningless. As Portland Communications partner Mark Flanagan explains, any disconnect between projected image and actual behaviour is now very vulnerable to attack, as brands with intricate overseas tax arrangements have found to their cost in recent months.

This climate leads to a range of responses from business.  The bar on corporate social responsibility is now much higher – philanthropy on the part of a business is now a hygiene factor, with much greater expectations for companies to use their scale and resources to tackle big societal issues and challenges, whether that is about sustainability, education or social inclusion.  Indeed, as global entities, companies are often seen to have the capability to bring about longer-term change in behaviour and society than national governments, who are confined by geography and borders.  Witness Nike aiming to tackle issues around development through The Girl Effect (see Impact, Issue 5, p13), or Intel’s work on science and engineering skills.

Early warning

Robert Blood, founder of the NGO tracking and issues analysis consultancy SIGWATCH, notes how many global companies now exercise “self-correction” when it comes to their policies, actions and behaviours.  Aware of the scrutiny of NGOs and activists, and the potential reputational risks, companies are now much more intently focused on ensuring high standards when it comes to their supply chains, and labour and environmental safeguards.  On a wider level, the discourse around activism informs branding. Think Apple and Google – not only the archetype of the activist taking on the rotten status quo, these brands also embody a Utopian belief in building a better world.

And the implications for insight professionals? When looking at perceptions of a brand or corporate reputation, or thinking about wider societal issues, researchers need to consider how best to understand the attitudes and viewpoints of activists. In the marketplace of ideas, campaigners can often be ‘early adopters’, or be the initial indicator for an issue that is about to go from the fringe to the mainstream.  Long before fracking became a larger controversy in the media and in political debate, Robert Blood at SIGWATCH picked up discussion and debate about shale gas among US activists.

But activism is not just about hardened campaigners; it is also set of behaviours and a mindset that we all may adopt at different times and in response to varying situations and contexts.   As the economics journalist Paul Mason has argued, drawing on thinking from anthropology and sociology, people operate in a society where individual identity can be a more fluid construct – where we adopt different personas and profiles depending on need and aspiration.   Our relationship then with a brand, or a wider issue, may shift into a more activist approach in response to news flow, or could be triggered by a new experience or stage in our lives. Technology means that jump is easy and convenient to make.  Campaigning is just one click, one email or one status update away.

The dynamics of the relationship between modern business and society as a whole means the potential for consumer activism is only set to increase.   Operating in a media landscape where brands often have to deal with highly emotional and aggressive criticism, companies will more and more find themselves drawn into, in the sociologist Stanley Cohen’s phrase, ‘moral panics’ – short, intense bursts of anger directed at institutions that are seen to be infringing on societal values – for example over issues such as the use of data, supply chain choices, marketing aimed at children or sales techniques.

As Financial Times writer Gillian Tett has pointed out, innovation in business and commerce is increasingly the preserve of specialists sitting in silos, and focused on highly complex and at times fairly impenetrable areas, whether that is in finance, biotechnology, medicine or energy.   The disconnect between private expertise and public understanding is then fraught with the potential for anxiety or apprehension, or at times, will be the cause of very legitimate concern.  In response to this conflict, and in part too due to the ease by which people can assemble and mobilise, expect to see more Sarah Kavanaghs and more movements to seemingly emerge from nowhere.

Graeme Trayner is vice-president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, where he leads the firm’s international corporate practice. This article was originally published in Impact Issue 6 July 2014. Click here for more information or to subscribe.

The photo appears with the original publication of this article from the MRS website.