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The Attack on Celebrity Brands

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
November 2002

Anti-Corporate campaigns targeting market leaders are becoming more prolific because of ideology, their effectiveness and the low cost organizing power of the Web.

Over the last decade we have witnessed a proliferation of Internet based NGO campaigns. Governments are the usual targets of these campaigns.  But, increasingly corporate practices, an industry, or an entire category of products are being placed under scrutiny. And frequently, a well-known company with a popular brand is singled out for special attention.

These anti-corporate campaigns take two forms. The first are drive-by shootings in which a company is temporarily targeted and attacked to flesh out a news release and draw attention to an issue. The second are more sustained campaigns that repeatedly link a corporation to a specific issue over a longer period of time. These campaigns are intended to embarrass the company for what it or its sub-contractors are doing and wring specific concessions and actions. Monsanto, Nike, McDonalds, Starbucks, GAP, Taco Bell, Royal Dutch Shell, Walmart-Mart, Disney, Toys R’ Us, Talisman Energy, MacMillan-Bloedel and Bayer have all been the targets of these on-going campaigns. 

So what explains the growing popularity of these anti-corporate campaigns to the point that they are becoming somewhat formulaic?

Ideology is a driver

Part of it reflects anti-business ideology fueling the view that governments have lost power to global corporations.  Because of their prominence, Big Brand corporations have become the poster children for global capitalism. That places them squarely in the line of fire of anti-globalizers.  Naomi Klein’s book No Logo provides a good exposition of the philosophical framework that supports this perspective.

Big Brands Are Celebrities

The success and constant marketing of the big brands has made them instantly recognizable icons. We buy their running shoes.  We drink their coffee. We have their logos on our shirts. Our ears are trained to prick up when we hear their names.

Stories about labour conditions in the shoe and clothing factories of Asia or the coffee plantations of Central America would normally never get any play in the North American media.  However, link Nike, Tommy Hilfinger and Starbucks to the issue and suddenly you have a lead story and gain a better chance of catching public attention.

Tell A Story

People absorb and retain messages better if they are delivered via a story, instead of a position paper. Linking an issue to a well know brand ‘story books’ the issue, making it more consumable. The complexity of the issue is reduced and simplified and the heroes and villains given shape and definition. Most of these campaigns are played out as variations of the Big Bad Wolf or David vs. Goliath themes.

Follow the Leader

The strategy is simple. Pick the leader and the rest of the industry will follow. The market leader doesn't’t even have to be the worst violator, just a well-known brand. Market leaders are the ones with the most to lose and they have the resources to act. Why go after 20 small chains when you can target one chain that has a 50% market share?

Brand Jiu-Jitsu

From the activists’ perspective, your targets are pre-sold and everywhere. It is the flip side of the branding explosion. Media-savvy activists use the strength and facets of the brand to draw attention to their issues.  The tactical goal is to clearly demonstrate how the brand image is in conflict with actual corporate practices, and in so doing, destroy, or at least damage, brand equity. 

Move Markets Not Governments

Governments are democratic institutions with built-in checks and balances. Any pressure to move in a particular direction sets off countervailing pressures. Activist attempts to push public policy in any particular direction tend to be slow going.

Faced with Government inaction, activists try to force change by targeting a product or company.  Often these campaigns do have an impact.

Anti-GMO campaigns against Monsanto’s products have affected farmers, food manufacturers, retailers and the company itself and started to shift government policy. Frito-Lay was targeted for making corn chips with genetically modified Starlink Corn and within weeks of the story breaking virtually abandoned its use. Bayer's Bacitrin was Ok’ed for use by governments but has become the target of NGOs to highlight the animal feed anti-biotic issue.

Corporations are not used to the same type of scrutiny and pressures that governments go through daily. Nor are they trained for the rough and tumble that is part and parcel of public life. They can be caught flat-footed by these types of campaigns. Often their initial reactions exacerbate their image problems.

They have millions of dollars of brand equity at risk and their corporate reputation on the line. Their natural instinct is to make the pain go away and get their name out of the newspaper. Business culture is non-ideological, pragmatic, flexible and results-driven. They will make concessions (even bad concessions) and change their policies, if they feel they have to. They will change supply arrangements or put pressure on suppliers to change their practices if that is what it takes.

Techno-Savvy Activists

Activists today increasingly share the same mindset.  They are passionately committed, generally wary of the motives of for-profit organizations and prepared to play any angle necessary.  The Internet has made it easier for them to create global campaigns of this type. A few dedicated volunteers who do their homework, are persistent and have a web site can draw blood. The playing field between those with a little and lot of money is leveled.  Existing coalitions and networks can be plugged into and bring an audience, support and media attention.

Transparency & Vulnerability

The take-away message for the Celebrity Brands is the Internet makes your organization more transparent and vulnerable. Damaging information about your company, posted on a web site in Asia or Europe, can be re-posted to an E-mail list in North America in a matter of hours.

Some issues are better suited to these campaigns. Companies who produce branded consumer goods or food & health related products are more vulnerable than those who sell commodities.  Much depends on the skills of the companies targeted. Corporations have been slow off the mark but they will become better at using the activists’ owns tools to sell their messages.

After September 11th, these activist groups lost a little gas. But they are not going away.  If anything, they seem to be proliferating.  Anti-celebrity brand strategies are now clearly in their playbook. These campaigns will become more frequent and sophisticated on both sides.

Related information:

Taco Bell Farm Workers
Nike Watch
Campaign to Label Genetically Modified Foods
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Council of Canadians
Strategies for Public Relations, Marketing, Reputation Management and Competitive Intelligence


Have a question or comment about this article? Send it to Scott Proudfoot at admin@hillwatch.com

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955