Unless you have been operating in a media blackout for the past week, you'll probably have noticed that President Trump has recently (on Holocaust Memorial Day, no less) signed a highly controversial Executive Order (EO) banning people from certain (predominantly Muslim) countries from entering the US. For anyone who is opposed to this action, the reaction from the public has been swift and encouraging:
- Immigration lawyers immediately began turning up at airports to offer their services pro bono to anyone who was stranded as a result of the order
- Protestors turned out by the thousands in dozens of US cities over the weekend to protest the ban
- The UK public responded with a petition calling on Parliament to deny Trump a state visit, a petition that attracted over 1.5m signatures in the first 48 hours after it was posted, and counting,* followed by a demonstration at 10 Downing Street this evening
- The ACLU, which is actively fighting the EO, saw donations surge to $24m in online donations over the weekend from 356,306 individuals**, 6x its normal annual online donation total
All of this citizen action was only days removed from the worldwide Women's Marches which drew millions of supporters around the globe in support of women's rights. So altogether, it's been a busy 10 days for people-powered activism.
Another aspect of social activism I have been following with interest is how companies are reacting to recent events (and how the public, in turn, is reacting to those companies).
- NYC taxi drivers strike at NY airports to protest the immigration bans; Uber makes it clear their drivers are still available and eliminates surge pricing, which combined with Uber CEO acting as economic advisor to Trump, leads thousands of consumers to delete the Uber app in protest
- Lyft makes a $1m donation to ACLU and for the first time surpasses Uber in daily downloads in wake of donation + celebrity-backed #DeleteUber campaign
- Starbucks announces intent to hire 10,000 refugees over next 5 years and offers support to existing employees impacted by EO; leads to #BoycottStarbucks being the top-trending hashtag in the US on Monday morning
- AirBnB announces offer of free housing to people impacted by the EO (and then provides a platform for people to sign up to volunteer their homes)
And this is just the beginning.
What I think is really interesting is how quickly companies have gotten involved in these issues and have turned their brands into clear political statements. While I can obviously think of other examples of brands being associated with particular causes, this feels different to me. It's more political and it's taken shape more rapidly and on a larger scale than anything I've seen before.
By positioning themselves so clearly on this issue, companies have given individuals with strong feelings on an emotive subject another way besides donating to a charity to feel they are in some way contributing to the "cause" and to signal their views: a selfie with a Starbucks cup (perhaps with a political hashtag for additional impact), a screenshot of Uber being deleted (or, indeed, of a proud Uber receipt for those in favour of the EO).
I'm very interested in this given that the vast majority of members of the general public will take a few campaigning or donation actions in a year at most vs. the literally thousands of commercial actions we will all take over the same period. If companies can authentically position their brands as carrying social and political weight, what does that mean for charities?
Will the infinitely larger advertising budgets held by private sector companies start to "crowd out" social actions that might have gone to charities or will this awakening of civil action be a tide that lifts all boats? It's become a cliche that charities have discounted their offers to save the world to the equivalent of the cost of a cup of coffee. What if the purchase of the coffee replaces the donation?
But does it matter? Perhaps corporates, by the virtue of their marketing muscle and scale, can accomplish more than we can. In which case, should we reverse our traditional relationship with corporates and instead rally our own support around them? But are they all genuine in their intentions? It's interesting to consider which companies are really putting their money where their mouths are and which ones might be doing a bit more symbolic signalling (I admit I am sceptical of the AirBnB offer until I know more about it...).
What do you think? Does this recent activism signal a real shift in how corporates engage on social issues or is it just variations on a theme? Should we be thinking differently about how we partner with corporates in what seems to be a period of renewed political activism? And are you suddenly craving a Starbucks mocha latte? Please share your thoughts by commenting below.
* I happened to be watching on my phone when the signature total tipped over the 1m mark -- I admit it was exhilarating to watch.
** Full disclosure: I was one of these donors. You can be, too, by clicking here.