How can campaigners influence the private sector? 4 lessons from the Behind the Brands campaign on Big Food

May 20, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam private sector researcher/evaluation adviser Uwe Gneiting reflects on 3 years of a campaign to change theUwe Gneitingbehavior of Big Food

Last month we marked the third anniversary of the Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign with a new briefing paper that included an updated scorecard of the world’s ten largest food and beverage companies’ sustainability policies.

As an evaluator looking at Behind the Brands, I’ve been trying to distil what we can learn from the experience – were our assumptions met, why or why not, and what does this mean for future efforts to influence global corporations? Here are four lessons that I believe are among the most relevant:

  1. Friends vs. foes –  pros and cons of being a ‘critical friend’ to companies

It’s the age-old question – how collaborative or confrontational should we be towards companies that we are trying to influence?  In Behind the Brands, we adopted a tone that was both problem- and solution-oriented and combined hard-hitting public campaigning with talking to (and advising) the companies. To help navigate the clashing currents of campaigning and engaging, we adopted principles to ensure our own accountability, formulated clear, non-negotiable asks, ensured transparency about our planned actions and guaranteed companies the right to respond to our published materials.

BtB scorecard May 2016And it worked. Public campaigning got companies to the table but our ‘good faith’ approach and our willingness to engage directly helped to keep them there. Furthermore, the engagement helped us to better understand companies’ interests and constraints. But it was hard, requiring us to constantly find the right balance between being principled and pragmatic – i.e. pushing the envelope of what companies should deliver and acknowledging their constraints.

  1. Pressure works – the amplifying effect of public campaigning

If direct engagement with companies can help us to reach productive outcomes, then why do we even need to build public pressure? Well, you do if you aim for more significant changes. In Behind the Brands, we learned that companies’ scores moved significantly more around the issues where we mobilized publicly (gender, land, climate) – or even just threatened to do so. This change is more pronounced with industry leaders (who most value their corporate reputation and brand image) and low-scoring performers (who have their poor performance highlighted and feel pressure to catch up to peers). It’s more difficult for companies in the middle of the pack although exceptions exist.

That being said, getting the attention of the media and the public can be challenging in the crowded public campaign space. In Behind the Brands, some of the most effective innovative and creative public campaign and messaging tactics included playfully referencing the brands,  amplifying the voices of people affected by companies’ and their supply chains through case studies, highlighting the scorecard and its changes, doing offline stunts, and rewarding progress by companies. The focus on digital campaigning has pushed us to be more nimble and has created new alliances, for example with online campaign platforms like SumofUs or, which ultimately helped us to mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporter actions.

  1. The challenges and benefits of ranking companies

Let’s be clear – any attempt to rank companies is imperfect, requires significant investment, and comes with a certainBtB ABF stunt Melbourne. Oxfam Australia. Photo-Lara McKinley low res level of simplification (even when you assess companies on 350+ indicators as in Behind the Brands). Also, scorecards like Behind the Brands are most suitable if the focus is on comparable outcome criteria (such as policy change), includes a comparable set of companies, and addresses issues for which benchmarks do not yet exist. And even then, scorecards will face challenges including the risk of greenwashing, the challenge of update fatigue, and the difficulty of reliably assessing changes in actual practice (rather than just policy).

Despite these challenges, Behind the Brands highlighted various ways through which a scorecard can contribute to a campaign’s change goals. It provided a hook and justification for public campaigning, served as an entry point to engaging with some companies, and appealed to their competitive spirits. As a benchmark, it can be used by others (e.g. investors) to evaluate companies and serve other NGOs or companies who want to adopt the criteria and indicators for their own work. Furthermore, a scorecard as used in Behind the Brands has shown to have the potential  to shape internal company dynamics by creating clear information of what the company should be doing on the policy front and by showing how they stack up vis-à-vis their competitors.

  1. Beyond the campaign – policy wins as starting, not end points

It is no secret that NGO campaigns have a more impressive track record for raising issues and achieving policy change than for tracking the implementation of those policies. Part of the reason is that implementation is complex as it involves thousands of suppliers in dozens of countries where much of the commercial activity remains hidden or undisclosed. It is simply impossible to assess implementation in the same systematic way policies can be assessed. In Behind the Brands, we share the concern that companies’ policy commitments are potentially meaningless if they are not followed through by action and if they don’t serve to contribute to broader changes at different levels of the global food system.

btb-brand-slide-title-485pxFor Oxfam, policy change may not be a sufficient condition, but it is certainly a necessary one for broader changes within the global food system. The acknowledgment by companies’ of their responsibility for addressing problems in a systematic way signals to the wider industry, suppliers and governments that tougher issues are now on the agenda, thereby shifting the narrative around corporate responsibility and helping to trigger action by others. These early steps can become starting points for more systematic change efforts, which will have to include greater collaboration and collective approaches to structural challenges (e.g. around pricing), a revision of business models and greater attention to the most fundamental challenge: how to ensure that the women and men who produce the world’s food are earning a fair share of the value of their work.