The rise of activism on Twitter and what it means for brand purpose

Twitter has provided a platform for a new wave of social and environmental activism, and provides an opportunity for brands to do purpose-driven advertising.

People are coming together at the grassroots level. They want visible action on issues they see as critical and which they do not believe the government is acting upon.

Twitter UK partnered with Starcom UK (@Starcom_UK) to research this phenomenon. We have set out to dissect both this and the rapid rise of brand-purpose marketing.

Only 1 in 10 people say they feel positive about the world’s future. 1 in 3 feel angry.

This is because people see the government as out of step. Two-thirds are concerned about climate change, and only 28% think the government is taking it seriously. Anger and resentment is turning into action as people increasingly take on activism.

87% have participated in an issue in some way.

Two core desires are driving activism — ‘challenge’ and ‘purpose’. This is to challenge the status quo and to pursue causes they are passionate about.

8 in 10 people believe brands are in a position to affect positive change.

Brands that are perceived to have an activist persona are more strongly associated with positive brand attributes. 

We uncovered some differences in how personal activism is perceived, and what’s behind it, versus brand activism. Emotions are the driving force behind personal activism, including feelings of being unhappy about something. 

In contrast, brand activism is perceived to be more patronlike and associated with being helpful and protective.

So how can brands do purpose and activism well?

We looked at numerous purpose-driven campaigns to ascertain their successful attributes as well as their impact on the brand overall. 

Using a driver analysis, we quantified the importance of 14 separate criteria for increasing brand positivity. From this, we saw a clear mandate: The most substantial contribution to campaign success came from grabbing people’s attention, inspiring them to get involved, and sparking conversation. 

We used this data to help identify four pillars of good purpose-driven marketing.

  1. Excitement: The first of these four pillars is the highest contributor (33%) to an increase in brand positivity. Key elements include inspiration, involvement, and conversation. This requires brands to move from shouting about causes to providing experiences rooted in solid insights about what the audience really cares about.

  2. Brand fit: This includes attributes such as authenticity and alignment between brand and cause. It accounts for 26% of brand impact. Consumers are increasingly switched onto lip service versus a desire for real change, and the likelihood is they’ll call it out when they don’t see it.

  3. Resonance: Accounting for 24% of brand impact, here the focus is around topicality, timing, and value to the consumer. By its very nature, social is the best place for a topical, cultural movement to take hold and do great things. 

  4. Ambition: Responsible for 17% of brand impact, ambition is about the brand taking a risk and committing itself to supporting a purpose with longevity. It’s important for brands to think about the long-term goal of their activism and what they’re trying to achieve. 

We’ve seen that purpose-driven campaigns often overfocus on the message or the cause itself. This can be to the detriment of creating an entertaining, attention-grabbing ad. It’s important to remember the fundamentals of good advertising still apply. 

In the summer of 2019, Starcom UK and Visa ran a campaign to make a stand for female empowerment and acceptance. They activated around the Women’s World Cup to bring this message to life, as well as to be a catalyst for the women’s game. The cause was at the heart but the execution was entertaining, inspirational, and sought to involve people along the way. Visa was the most talked-about brand around the Women's World Cup in the UK, and research also showed that its approach was inspirational for people on Twitter.


Future Tensions in Activism, Twitter + Starcom, 2019, UK, Twitter Insiders (managed by Sparkler). 

Brand Purpose, Firefish + The Numbers Lab, commissioned by Twitter, 2019, UK & US. Research program consisted of expert interviews, online qual, implicit testing with IRT survey, and quantitative driver analysis. 

  • Government & Politics
  • Audience Insights
  • Tech B2B
  • Perspective
  • United Kingdom
  • Audience Targeting

Related content