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

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.

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7 Responses to “How can campaigners influence the private sector? 4 lessons from the Behind the Brands campaign on Big Food”
  1. Chris Roche

    Interesting stuff Uwe. I would also be interested in how the structure of the markets in which these companies are engaged lends themselves to being influenced by the likes of Oxfam, or not, as well as the degree to which Oxfam’s strategy aligns to this . I find Kapstein & Busby’s work on the ARV market very useful in this regard (podcast of Busby’s talk at LSE here

    They argue that a movement’s ability to transform markets depends upon whether: (1) markets are contestable; (2) they have framed their arguments to resonate across their target audiences; (3) the movement itself has a coherent goal; (4) the costs are low, or the benefit-to-cost ratio is favourable; and, (5) institutions are present to reward continued achievement of the new market principle. (All of which also begs a question about whether is there actually a ‘movement’ in this area)

    How do you think these criteria would apply to the companies and markets you seek to influence in this work, and Oxfam’s advocacy?

    • Uwe Gneiting

      Thanks, Chris. Yes, market characteristics (or industry structure) clearly played a role in how we set up BtB (e.g our strategies, asks), affected the campaign’s success (e.g. the brand vulnerability of companies, the existence of a broader movement around sustainable agriculture), and complicated our work (e.g. the lack of transparency and traceability of many agricultural commodity chains, the multitude and complexity of issues they affect, etc.).

      That being said, here are two caveats: first, there is a need to unpack what we mean by market characteristics/industry structure to make the term more meaningful and not end up with an all-encompassing term or a laundry list of factors across varying dimensions. Second, from a methodological perspective it is of course difficult to isolate the relative effect of different market characteristics on a single campaign, which is why I think more comparative work is needed.

      Here are two links to pieces of work I have been involved in that address some of these concerns:
      – A framework that looks at three dimensions to help explain advocacy effectiveness (based on examples from global health): characteristics of the issue, network/movement characteristics, and the policy environment:
      – A comparative analysis on how patterns in production, distribution and consumption helps to explain why the Fair Trade and the anti-sweatshop movement ended up in very different places despite a lot of other similar campaign characteristics:

      Hope this is useful. Curious what you and others think.


  2. Thanks Uwe for the analysis. In particular, suggesting that one-size-fits all approaches will not work because pressure affects organizations differently depending on where they sit in the pack, top, bottom or middle. I am curious, though, about what’s behind Oxfam’s brand. Many know (but many don’t) that Unilever has established a significant corporate partnership with Oxfam, and here it sits at the top of the index. Perhaps that is a result of the partnership or perhaps that is the goal of their donations. My point is to suggest neither, but to ask why the fact of the partnership is not clearly disclosed. Surely this would make for a typical disclaimer.

    • Uwe Gneiting

      Hi Marc,
      You are asking an important question. Yes, Oxfam has engaged with Unilever for several years from joint research to in-kind donations in the case of humanitarian disasters to a joint project to include more smallholder farmers into the company’s supply chain. We see the roles of the private sector to be diverse and adopt a multi-faceted approach (including collaboration and campaigning) to match them.

      Contrary to what you stated, we have been fully transparent about our relationships with the big 10 companies on the Behind the Brands website:

      Let me also emphasize that throughout the campaign we have ensured that we conduct our analysis and scoring of the Big 10 (including Unilever), in an impartial manner across all the companies. Our methodology, scoring system and company assessments are based entirely on publicly available information and are fully disclosed in the public domain, which should enable public scrutiny of the consistency of the assessments.

      Most importantly, in all of our interactions with companies, we always reserve the right to speak freely – whether we’re collaborating with or campaigning against them.

      Hope this answers your question. Happy to discuss further.

      • Thanks for your answer Uwe. I guess my point wasn’t very clear — I know that Oxfam has been transparent in terms of the relationship with Unilever. My question was why this transparency was not extended to your blog post, as I would expect in an article. I’m just a reader, but it doesn’t help the credibility of the findings, which will leave more than a few people at least asking the question. As for consistency of the assessment and methodology, I don’t doubt it at all. But if that settled the matter, Ben Goldacre would be out of a job.

        As I said before, I think these are interesting findings. And with the World Humanitarian Summit further entrenching the marriage of humanitarian and development aid with the private sector, it’s past time we begin understanding them. So you’ve made a valuable contribution to a question that grows in importance.

  3. Andrew Wells-Dang

    In Southeast Asia, we’re starting out with engaging domestic/regional companies involved in cross-border land and agricultural investments. Seeing the effects of Behind the Brands, there’s been some discussion among Oxfam colleagues and partners whether or how we should adopt a similar scorecard approach. At least for me, I’m not yet convinced that the incentives for companies to improve their performance line up in the same ways – or, as Uwe’s post puts it well, where the line is between principled and pragmatic. I’d be interested in Uwe’s and others’ views about how this methodology and approach could be applied for Southern-based companies.

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