National policymakers are now faced with the challenge of implementing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and achieving the scopes envisioned through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) worldwide. Diversity discrimination and social inequalities often responsible for sociopolitical uncertainty are at the heart of the agenda. Increasingly, corporations are pushed to take a public stance on controversial issues, promoting social improvements through their power to lead social change. This phenomenon is known in the academic literature as brand activism (BA). Many companies, for example, are exposing themselves to the need to cope with the equality gap that still exists on aspects such as gender, race and age, especially those operating in the beauty and personal care industry. The purpose of this paper is to explore how BA is being used as a driver for equality and inclusion, supporting the achievement of the related SDGs 5 and 10. Through a comparative analysis of the two inclusive brands Dove and L’Oréal, this study aims to capture BA under different corporate strategies in terms of stated values, initiatives and digital communication. Both theoretical and managerial perspectives are offered in the study, which emphasizes that different activist approaches can be successful, provided strong and consistent values are adhered to. The findings of this research show that although the two brands use different activist approaches, one more communicative and the other less so, both are successful because they reflect authentic and consistent values that are considered positively by consumers. Therefore, the study questions the dominant view that BA authenticity is linked to marketing, placing greater emphasis on prosocial corporate practices over communication.
The introduction in 2015 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the United Nations 2030 Agenda changed the voluntary and philanthropic nature that characterized corporate social responsibility (CSR), soliciting companies to reach certain thresholds towards sustainable development. Moving beyond the scope of the traditional “three-pillar” (Planet–People–Profit) approach to sustainable development , the SDGs’ integrated framework (made up of 169 targets and 232 unique indicators), leads businesses from being reactive to stakeholders’ mandates to assuming a proactive commitment, aware of their potential in influencing sustainable development trajectories. Business participation is considered as an imperative proponent in affecting both public and private sector attitudes, as well as mobilizing collective change in markets and societies towards shared well-being [2,3]. Some companies are engaged in socially responsible initiatives related to their businesses or benefiting their communities, while others have advanced their commitment by supporting controversial causes related, or not, to their core business . In fact, large companies are increasingly taking public positions on controversial issues that plague the planet at both the global and local levels, hoping to sway public opinion. Several brands have played this activist role through their campaigns, such as Nike , Patagonia , Gillette  and Unilever , supporting both environmental and controversial prosocial issues such as racial inequality, toxic masculinity, gender minority rights, etc. This phenomenon is recognized in the academic literature as BA. BA has the potential to create ‘win-win-win’ situations that simultaneously benefit companies, consumers and society . Actually, some empirical studies have shown that corporate commitment and investments in activism determine a positive influence on marketing outcomes and guarantee a competitive advantage for the business in terms of purchase intentions, brand equity and corporate reputation . The main reason why BA has become more widespread in recent years is the increased expectations of consumers who, unlike in the past, are beginning to ask not what is being sold but who is selling it . According to Accenture (2019) ’s global research, 62% of customers expect companies to take a stand on social issues, the failure of which could mean companies will pay the price; 53% of consumers likely to complain if they are unhappy with the brand’s words or actions, 47% will switch to other brands and 17% may never come back. For this reason, some brands have started to pay more attention to meeting consumers’ expectations, strengthening the consumer–brand relationships through alignment with their values.
Table 1 presents the results of the cross-analysis of the cases. This section shows the main similarities and contrasts between the brands that emerged from the comparison of the three macro sections (themes): values, initiatives and communication.
Comparative Analysis on the Theme ‘Values’
The brand purpose of Dove is as follows: ‘Let’s change beauty. We believe beauty should be a source of confidence, and not anxiety. That’s why we are here to help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look, helping them raise their self-esteem and realise their full potential’. The brand purpose of L’Oréal is as follows: ‘Create the beauty that moves the world. Our goal is to offer each and every person around the world the best of beauty in terms of quality, efficacy, safety, sincerity and responsibility to satisfy all beauty needs and desires in their infinite diversity’. Thus, both Dove and L’Oréal have at the heart of their purposes the concept of beauty, to be read as a source of confidence, especially for women. Some of the common starting points detected are the same, such as ‘empowerment’, ‘self-confidence’, ‘self-care’ and obviously ‘beauty’. Dove pushes a lot on the concept of ‘authentic beauty’, to be valued in its uniqueness and diversity, fighting unrealistic standards of beauty. L’Oréal, on the other hand, with the expression ‘best of beauty’ intends to pursue an inclusive, responsible, innovative beauty, focusing strongly on the quality, efficacy and safety of its products. The different core themes help us understand the different approaches to the activism of the two brands. The keywords ‘body positivity’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘youth’ and ‘expertise’ tracked in Dove emphasize the brand’s willingness to be active towards young women by supporting them to grow in harmonious relationship with their bodies. As for the keywords that characterize L’Oréal, however, the following can be noted: ‘gender equality’, ‘feminine/feminist’ and ‘sisterhood’, indicating greater activism in defending and enhancing the role of women in society that are all encompassed, for 50 years, in the militant tagline (as they defined it) ‘you’re worth it’.