Five of the best activist marketing campaigns

4 Nov 2018

Whether it’s Nike supporting Colin Kaepernick or Starbucks promising to recruit refugees in the wake of Donald Trump’s controversial immigration ban, there are more brands choosing to stand for something socially than ever before.


According to a study by Havas Worldwide, 73% of consumers believe that companies should do more than just offer a product or service, with 57% prepared to boycott a brand that doesn’t align with their social beliefs. This means a retailer can no longer just sell products, but also has to put purpose at the core of its brand.

In order to achieve this, brands are increasingly taking an activist stance in their marketing as they aim to forge a deeper connection with their customers. Sometimes, this can be a terrible idea (just think Pepsi’s attempt at wokeness with its tone-deaf Kendall Jenner protest advert), but when it works it can have a transformative effect on a business and open up a brand to more customers. Standing for something can also have a considerable impact on sales. Take Unilever; the FMCG giant’s ‘sustainable living’ brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business in 2017.

From themes of immigration to female empowerment, here are five brands’ activist campaigns that got it right.

Love Immigration


Great marketing campaigns should stir up debate and that’s exactly what fashion retailer Jigsaw did with its bold ‘Love Immigration’ campaign. The out-of-home and media campaign aimed to show how Jigsaw sources materials from across the world, making the point that without diversity its products couldn’t be made.

Jigsaw teamed up with, giving its staff genealogy tests to show the diversity of the fashion industry and celebrate the fact there are 45 different nationalities working within the Jigsaw business. Launching in October 2017, the campaign was a unifying message at a time where fear-mongering around immigration was still fresh in the British psyche following the Brexit vote.

The campaign had a spend of just £200,000, yet reached an online audience of 80 million people, receiving 200,000 positive mentions and a co-sign from London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan. Its main poster, which appeared throughout London’s tube stations, is now displayed in the permanent collection at London's V&A Museum of Arts. The campaign remains a great example of how taking a stand can galvanise your audience and tap into a wider public mood.

2020 Vision

Realising road safety remained a big problem within the car industry, Volvo took the bold step of promising that by 2020 no one will be killed in one of its vehicles.

A series of emotive ads highlighted how modern cars are not safe and can place people’s lives at danger, while Volvo also made headlines after it launched safer baby seats in its cars as well as high-visibility innovation for bicycle riders in the form of a water-based spray-on reflective paint called LifePaint, which shows up on clothing at night to prevent cycling accidents and injuries from cars.

The Swedish car maker’s VP of global marketing Thomas Andersson told Marketing Week: “Around 14% of those who watched our ad about the child seat took action and interacted with the campaign or bought one of our cars. On average the score is only 5% so I think that shows this renewed safety message is making a major impression.”

Volvo’s new XC60 car recently won multiple awards for safety, highlighting that Volvo is practicing what it preaches with this campaign.

Worlds Apart

Heineken doesn’t necessarily have a reputation for taking an activist stance, yet its 2017 ‘Worlds Apart’ campaign succeeded in changing perceptions around the mainstream lager brand.

The ‘Worlds Apart’ ad challenged Brits to break down barriers and find common ground with others who have opposing views. It featured a feminist debating with an anti-feminist and a transgender woman paired up with transphobe, with the campaign trying to prove that even people with opposing views can come together and stamp out their intolerances.

The campaign received mixed reviews from critics, but it succeeded in generating huge amounts of publicity for Heineken on social media while showing the beer brand had depth. Heineken also credited a 3.9% rise in volume sales in the first half of 2017 by customers in the US and Europe who had responded positively to the ad.

Sport England
This Girl Can

Having found that sports participation in the UK was suffering from a significant gender gap, Sport England launched its ‘This Girl Can’ campaign in the hope of getting more women involved with exercise.

Research carried out by Sport England reveals that two million fewer 14 to 40-year-old women take part in sport when compared with men, despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active. It launched the ‘This Girl Can’ ad to normalise exercise among women.

The campaign was a huge success, encouraging 1.6 million British women to exercise and the main 90 second ad being watched by over 40 million people on Facebook and YouTube. The 2015 campaign is the new standard for empowering and inspiring your audience via an integrated marketing campaign.

Buy A Lady A Drink

Teaming up with actor Matt Damon and charity, beer brand Stella Artois lent its support to the latter’s ‘Buy A Lady A Drink’ campaign back in 2015. The campaign’s aim is to provide 3.5 million people, particularly women with families in the third world, with long-term access to clean water by 2020.

The ongoing campaign has been a major success, with Stella selling chalices with proceeds going towards The Matt Damon ads have also achieved major cut-through.

The campaign allowed Stella to shake off its ‘old man image’, proving how taking a stand can create more substance for a traditional brand. “It is fair to say historically Stella Artois is seen as an older [person’s] brand so we needed a new way of resonating with a younger audience,” said Stella Artois’ senior brand manager Rowan Chidgey. “The ‘Buy A Lady A Drink’ campaign has been perfect for achieving that.”