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Marta Peral Ribeiro

Marta Peral Ribeiro
– Communication Consultant –

The digital side of activism

Digital activism began in the 1990s, having evolved exponentially in recent years thanks to social networks.

Political,  social, and environmental causes move activists around the world, who use social networks as a megaphone to reach out to the masses and incite change. And the brands are not excluded from this dialogue.

Marta Peral Ribeiro
– Communication Consultant –

The digital side of activism

Digital activism began in the 1990s, having evolved exponentially in recent years thanks to social networks.

Political,  social, and environmental causes move activists around the world, who use social networks as a megaphone to reach out to the masses and incite change. And the brands are not excluded from this dialogue.

What is digital activism?

Also known as cyberactivism, online activism, or clicktivism, digital activism is literally all the activism that happens in the virtual world.

Through digital resources such as social media posts (including live), online petitions, email campaigns, educational content on the website, sending SMS, it is possible to mobilize groups of people for change. And it can all be done from a smartphone.

Digital activism has some advantages over ” physical “activism, namely:

  • The reach of the message, which gets to many more people in much less time;
  • The ease of communication in general: the transmission of the message, the process of mobilizing and even the recruitment;
  • The possibility of continuing discussions that began outside the digital;
  • New ways to engage the community;
  • The ability to be more expressive and accepted than in the public sphere;
  • The opportunity to reach differentiated audiences.

This article will address social networks in particular, as they are the most common communication tool in digital activism and have the greatest impact in terms of mass change.

Social networks as a means of communication

imagem a dizer "social media"Source: @merakist, Unsplash

For many movements, it was the first time in years that a group was unable to come out and demonstrate. The pandemic forced several actions to become digital. For example, Black Lives Matter, Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, or the LGBTQI+ Community Pride March.

And, unsurprisingly, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Youtube, and  Twitter have long since become a favorable space to boost an activist movement, because they present a familiar and multifaceted environment.

Nowadays networks are used for far more than mere entertainment. We use them to search for news, culture, products, and brands. Apart from this, the social network has a huge power of global connection. That is, what occurs at the moment at the local level can subsequently reach the whole world, simply by publishing the content on social networks. In turn, users fuel the debate.

We all know of the Floyd case last year, which spread all over the world in a few hours.

The transformation of the social network into a social impact

According to the Global Web Index, the impact of George Floyd’s tragic event was on a global scale, beginning in the United States and deflagrating through Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The videos captured live, from the smartphones of the citizens who passed by, rippled through social media like gunpowder, raising the Black Lives Matter movement to a level never seen before, with a gigantic social repercussion that also brought companies into the conversation.

Many brands have publicly expressed their position on the case, defending social justice.

Brand activism

Also in relation to the Black Lives Matter example, some companies made public statements to show their support for racial justice, others reported the reformulation of policies within the organization in favor of ethnic inclusion.

post no Instagram da Gucci sobre "Black Lives Matter"Source: Instagram Gucci
post no Instagram da Sephora sobre "Black Lives Matter"Source: Instagram Sephora

Also in relation to the Black Lives Matter example, some companies made public statements to show their support for racial justice, others reported the reformulation of policies within the organization in favor of ethnic inclusion.

Brand activism can bring several advantages to the companies– in addition to the relevance it gives to the cause itself. And the main benefits are brand visibility and recognition, internal team strengthening, and customer loyalty.

Brand differentiation

A brand that takes on an activist action is (re)positioning itself in the market.

In addition to standing out within its segment, it stands out among consumers, who notice it and will want to get to know it better if they share the same ideals.

With the notoriety that the brand gains, comes the domino effect, in which several players begin to pay attention and talk about it: users on their social networks (including influencers), information shared on third-party websites, in the media outside the digital, among others.

Team motivation

An ethical environment, where human values are a priority, makes any company more desirable for most employees – especially if they are younger with a more pressing activist spirit – because they nourish a sense of belonging that influences their productivity.

If in addition, the company rises for social or environmental causes, which benefit everyone, not only will it attract other professionals but those who already work there will hardly want to abandon ship – or rather, the job.

Customer engagement

When the consumer likes a brand and identifies with the cause it actively defends, an emotional connection is created.

This makes them want to buy its products or services because they know their beliefs are aligned and want to contribute to them.

In other words, an involved customer is a loyal customer.

And, of course, a brand does not live without customers. After all, their behavior influences the companies’ actions. Consumers pay attention and expect responsibility on behalf of the companies – above all, that these run real actions that are in line with what they support.

What do consumers really want to see?

Real actions.

Sometimes there are companies that create campaigns, but in practice prove ineffective or, worse, seem false.

Consumers want to see brands remake their internal culture, recruit individuals, regardless of their ethnicity or condition.

The study of the Global Web Index (2000), already mentioned above, demonstrates that the main actions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that citizens expect from the brands are:

  • the sponsorship of local initiatives;
  • the demonstration of their support through social networks;
  • inclusion in the company’s leading positions.
Source: Global Web Index, 2020

The power and accountability of consumers/users

Every purchase we make is a political act.

What we buy and where we buy, is a choice that we make over another(s). That is, it is up to the consumer to decide to whom they should give their money – and their power. In the digital environment, the logic is the same, although with somewhat different nuances. Each user has the power to influence the proportion of the size of their network of contacts.

1 click – 1 vote

We can show interest and support someone, a movement, or an institution through:

  • pages we follow
  • publications which we “like”
  • comments we write publicly
  • sharing the activist content

Outside social networks, we can publicize your actions, forward your emails, petitions, etc.

Commitment vs. complacency

As we can see, all our online behavior represents what we identify with and what we do can serve as a vote.

However, it is essential that this behavior remains intact also offline, and this is one of the challenges of digital activism. The project “Digital activism in Portugal: an exploratory study ” points out the complacency that exists online,  with the ease with which we attribute likes or share content, and how more concrete actions demolish this commitment.

Where to start?

In which cause is the brand going to invest?

Considering the history and reputation of the brand, what moves it? Which cause is worth being defended? Having identified the cause and its motivations, it is essential to research a lot, gather facts and all kinds of concrete information that make the issue indisputable.

Outline an economically viable strategy

When a brand decides to publicly assume its support for a cause, it is necessary to define a well-thought-out strategy. And one of the principles is that there is a sustainable economic structure, to deal with both campaigns and some unforeseen circumstances.

Get to know your audience

Who are your customers and followers? Are they aligned with the cause you want to support? How to communicate the message in a way that is properly grasped by users? On the other hand, it is also important to know your opponents.

Diversify formats in communication channels

Digital platforms offer a number of publishing features. From live videos, through images or videos with educational captions, petitions, creation of events, hashtags dedicated to the movement (hashtivism), stories, and fundraising.

Educational content

Offer your followers useful content, explaining the motivations of the cause that the brand defends, studies that support it, share the reformulations that are being made in the organizational structure itself, and infographics that explain how each consumer can contribute.

Support network

Nothing moves without the collective. Find partners and digital influencers who identify with the same causes to increase the reach of the message. It will be beneficial for both parties.


True cultural changes require time and this involves a high sense of responsibility. In a constantly changing world, consumers increasingly value consistency. And that consistency goes beyond work: it also includes public image, brand reputation crafted day by day.

Support for local initiatives

Concrete actions, such as donations to community initiatives, for example, prove the support provided by the brand. Not all companies are able to make donations, but they can analyze what they already do and what they can better offer where they already are.

Integrity in organizational culture

The publicly defended cause should be practiced within the company itself. For example, would a brand be consistent to defend environmental sustainability and dispose of disposable materials or harmful detergents in its offices or stores? Or defend Black Lives Matter on social media and reject collaborators of other ethnicities?

Are there risks associated with taking a position?


There are brands that have been criticized for standing up for the greater good and others that, by contradictory actions, have aroused public outrage, as was the case with  L’Oréal  Paris a few years ago.

And in 2017  the brand was the target of protests for firing the transgender model Munroe Bergdorf for their statements about the violence and supremacy of whites. After 3 years,  the model returned to L’Oreal, now part of the executive board of diversity and inclusion in the UK.

munroe-bergdorf-loreal-diversity-campanhaSource: Pinterest


As the Portuguese proverb says, one cannot please Greeks and Trojans.

However, if the cause is already part of the brand’s DNA and if there is solid strategic thinking, followers will also follow in this respect. Most likely they will continue to buy consistently and possibly the brand will also attract new customers precisely for the cause it defends.


I could talk about several examples of brand activism, but I present the case of the cosmetics brand The Body Shop for encompassing several principles addressed in this article and for its consistency over the years.

Based on its commitment to the environment, the brand has launched different campaigns for environmental sustainability and, more recently, on self-esteem.

Refill Campaign

The company has installed 7 refueling stations in Portuguese stores so that customers can refill their products in their own bottles.

Body Shop CF Pacific Centre Refill Station (CNW Group/The Body Shop)Source: The Body Shop

Self-Love Campaign

In this campaign, the brand aims to convey confidence and self-esteem to people, who are worthy regardless of their appearance, gender, ethnicity, and choices.

  • Images with explanatory captions and inspiring videos (Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube)

Body shop post sobre Self loveBody shop post sobre Self love

  • Interactive images with campaign hashtags

Body shop post sobre Self love

Source: Instagram – The Body Shop
  • Podcast with special guests, including digital influencers
Podcast bodyshop sobre selfloveSource: Anchor – The Body Shop
  • Launched an interesting study on the subject on the website, in pdf format, available for download (in English)

estudo "global self love index" da bodyshop

Finally, this example also demonstrates the relationship between what happens in a social network and its expansion to other strategies, such as campaigns, website development, and others that can happen offline, such as conferences, seminars, etc.