Brand activism for small businesses: 4 tips for developing a social impact strategy

brand activism for small businesses: 4 tips for developing a social impact strategy

Brand activism refers to the concrete actions that a business takes to affect change for a social, political, or environmental cause. A brand should already contain a set of core values, and brand activism is a way to make those values more than bullet points on an About Us page. Instead, these values can manifest into real, positive change for the communities a business serves.
Brand activism often takes the shape of a specific campaign, such as BrewDog’s pledge to restore 2,050 acres of peatland in Scotland. It can also be baked into an entire business model, such as Toms Shoes’ famous One for One pledge. Although the most high profile examples come from large corporations with vast resources for widespread campaigns, small businesses can make a huge impact in their local communities through brand activism.
A successful campaign depends on a number of factors: community involvement, media visibility and funding. This is where businesses can play a vital role in local activism—they already have a customer network and experience with messaging and promotion. And small businesses are particularly active contributors to their local communities. In fact, found that small businesses give 250% more than large corporations in local sponsorships and donations.
To get an idea of how exactly a small business can support its community, we looked at a brand activism campaign in our own Bay Area backyard, launched by San Jose streetwear brand Cukui. Although Cukui’s business has a mostly local scope, the success of its campaign has much to teach small businesses who want to follow in its footsteps.
Should businesses stick to business and leave activism to activists? Some might argue—particularly when they oppose the brand’s cause—that yes, they should. Of course, that would also mean that a business exists solely to enrich itself off of a community without ever giving back, which doesn’t sound like the kind of place anyone wants to shop or work at. Brands are founded on the idea of service and providing value to their customers—they are supposed to contribute to the common good. And at the end of the day, inaction is a type of action.
Brands have power, and this can help or harm society. The year 2018 saw a key demonstration of the kind of impact companies can make when sports apparel brand Nike partnered with former American football player Colin Kaepernick.
By this point, Kaepernick had become a controversial figure as a result of his public protests against police brutality. During one game’s performance of the US National Anthem, Kaepernick chose to kneel, saying later that he could not stand before the flag of a nation whose police willfully murder unarmed Black people like himself. The National Football League (NFL) received numerous complaints that Kaepernick had disrespected the flag, and it caved. Kaepernick was dropped from his team and essentially blacklisted.
In the wake of all of this, Nike could have easily chosen not to act, considering its advertising contract with Kaepernick was due to expire. Instead, it extended the contract and ran an ad featuring Kaepernick’s face and the phrase “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” firmly aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. While those opposed to Kaepernick’s actions burned Nike shoes in retaliation, the amount of recognition the ad received prompted the NFL to release a conciliatory statement: “The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”
This is the kind of impact that a brand can have—to inspire its audience and sway powerful decision-makers with its influence. Nike is a large-scale clothing retailer with a global audience, and that was why they chose to tackle a large-scale problem—that of national police brutality and the complicit silence of organizations like the NFL.
While a smaller clothing store might not have the same reach, it can take on big problems through a local scope, which can have a much more community and personal impact on those affected by these massive issues. Let’s take a look at how streetwear brand Cukui did just that.
During the 2020 pandemic, America saw a rise in anti-AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) hate crimes due to misinformation and ignorance, and as time passed, there was little sign the violence was abating. A report by NBC News found that 2021 saw a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Being an AAPI-owned business, Cukui wanted to do its part to help their community, and it didn’t let the fact that it’s just a local clothing store stop them.
Cukui is a streetwear clothing brand located in San Jose, California that fuses Asian Pacific Islander, Mexican and the local Bay Area culture. Its apparel celebrates its many cultural influences with designs inspired by classic tattoos, Polynesian art, lowrider cars, graffiti and Bay Area sports teams. Even the brand name itself embodies its multicultural heritage. Founder Jason Locquiao explains, ”In Hawaiian culture, the ‘kukui nut’ is a symbol for wisdom and enlightenment. In Mexican culture ‘cucuy’ means boogeyman. We chose Cukui as the name to bridge all these elements together.”
As part of our Bay Made documentary series spotlighting local businesses, we spoke to Cukui’s founders in their flagship store about their business history, their cultural roots and their commitment to social justice.
Watch and learn more about Cukui on YouTube now.
Cukui’s brand is intimately tied to its community, and one of its fundamental values is to support its neighbors as consistently as its neighbors have supported them. So when anti-Asian hate crimes started to rise, Cukui decided to use its local influence to raise awareness of the issue and funds for charitable organizations fighting racism and discrimination. Its apparel offered a prime opportunity to accomplish both of these goals: a graphic t-shirt would provide a canvas for the message and the sales would provide the means for fundraising. With this in mind, Cukui applied for funding with 99designs and ran a design contest for a t-shirt graphic bearing the slogan “Stop Asian Hate.”
The Cukui team found that sharing their contest poll and design images to choose from was a great way to engage with their audience, alongside promoting the cause. To select a winning design, they ran a poll highlighting their top picks, receiving 231 votes overall. It was one of the most engaging posts on their Instagram. “We selected the highest voted design from the contest,” Locquiao says. “The designer had a good grasp on the look and feel of the brand with tattoo style lettering and a lotus flower.”
After receiving the design files, Cukui had the graphic printed on t-shirts and tote bags through Vistaprint. Its goal was to donate 100% of proceeds made from apparel sales toward charity organizations and families directly impacted by AAPI-related hate crimes. To accomplish this, the Cukui team asked well-known and influential figures in the local Asian-American community to model the apparel. They launched a brand activism campaign with the images shared widely across social media. The community responded positively with their support for the cause.
Cukui successfully delivered on its brand activism campaign goals, and it accomplished this without being a mega-conglomerate with vast resources. So what lessons can other small businesses take away from Cukui’s example?
The first step in a brand activism campaign is to choose a cause to support. There are unfortunately no shortages of social, political and environmental ills to address in the world, and even the biggest corporations can only do so much. That’s why it’s important to focus your resources on where you can make the most direct impact, especially as a small business.
In Cukui’s case, it chose to address the issue of anti-Asian violence. There were three factors that went into this decision:
Not all of these points may apply to every small business, and there are likely to be brand and business-specific factors to consider. At the same time, points 2 and 3 are pretty essential: to make an impact, brand activism is reliant on a connection to a cause that both the business and its customers care about, and have achievable goals that contribute to that cause.
Cukui’s activism as a brand is rooted in who they are and in its immediate community. The stakes were personal for the team at Cukui. In other words, it wasn’t activism that was done to win marketing points. This was reinforced by their willingness to donate all of their campaign profits.
It certainly helped that Cukui’s authenticity is already baked into its design philosophy. Its store was conceptualized with its local culture and identity in mind. So in many ways, activism and brand purpose starts from the very beginning of a business’s inception: who you are should be a part of what you do. A small business’s story should be grounded in a shared identity, values and goals with the community it serves: whether that’s customers, employees or the founders of a business.
But that’s not to say that if a particular cause does not directly tie into a brand’s identity that it does not concern them. There are, after all, patrons whom it will concern, and small businesses can support issues in significant ways that reflect their values. Where a cause impacts a specific group or community, these folks should be involved in the campaign (as Cukui did by involving AAPI community members in their campaign) as they are the individuals who will be impacted by the campaign or cause.
People naturally want to feel like their work is creating meaning. As the 99designs Design Without Borders 2022 freelancer survey found: “Designers are looking for purpose, not just a paycheck. From healthcare and climate change to racial injustice, 97% of freelancers believe creatives have the power to make a real social impact. And with brand activism on the rise, 85% feel it’s important to work for clients who share their values.” With that in mind, a brand activism campaign creates that sense of purpose for all involved with a small business, from the staff to the owners. And the last thing you want is for all that passion to go to waste on a poor campaign plan.
For Cukui, its goals were to raise awareness of anti-Asian hate crimes and to raise money to support those affected. Goals also need success metrics, and Cukui was able to gauge the campaign’s visibility and fundraising progress through social media engagement and the number of t-shirts sold. In short, these goals don’t need to be overly elaborate or even unique—so long as there is a way to measure impact.
It is also important to be transparent about a campaign’s goals—this will show that the campaign is serious, thought-out and worth supporting. Additionally, the community may have feedback on more effective ways to support them, and the business must be open to these suggestions early on, even if it might mean making big changes to the campaign.
Community is at the center of any brand activism campaign—it is the “social” in “social impact.” So even while a campaign might have originated with a small business, it inevitably has to spread beyond it to encompass people from the community. And with the way that social media has ramped up mass communication, there’s really no excuse for not reaching the people who will care and support your cause.
For its campaign, Cukui tapped into its existing social media audience, and the response was deafening. By promoting the design contest poll on Instagram, it wound up with one of its highest-performing posts ever, receiving over 1,200 likes, 84 comments, 184 shares, 52 saves and 74 new followers. Ultimately, this post was about letting the community steer the campaign: Cukui deferred to the community’s judgment by choosing the top voted design in the poll.
Involving the community may also mean taking things offline and connecting face-to-face. Cukui did this by partnering with influential figures in the local Asian-American community to promote the campaign merch.
A successful brand activism campaign involves a lot of different pieces coming together, from planning to production to launch. Similarly, the success of a small business depends on a number of factors coming together: startup costs, design and branding, and finding a customer base. As a result, small business owners are fighters from the get-go, carving out a space in an already crowded market.
But the good news is that they aren’t fighting alone: a 2022 survey by One Poll found that 76% of consumers make a dedicated effort to financially support small businesses. With that amount of support behind them, there are giant things small businesses can accomplish, and it is only right to give back to the community that has built them up. Like Cukui, a small business can leverage (and build) its network, make a brand activism plan and successfully deliver with the help of its community.

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Our newsletter is for everyone who loves design! Let us know if you’re a freelance designer (or not) so we can share the most relevant content for you.
By completing this form, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.