How the Behind the Brands campaign has driven change in corporate policy

Private sector

Over the last three years Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign has leveraged the power of consumers to persuade the world’s largest food and beverage companies to account for what happens in their supply chains. Here our Ethical Trade Manager, Rachel Wilshaw, reflects on successes and learning.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign grew out of our wider GROW campaign on global food security. It was launched in February 2013, together with the rating and ranking of the top 10 global food and beverage companies on their ethical and environmental supply chain management. Collectively these brands generate revenues of more than $1bn a day – equivalent to the
GDP of the world’s low income countries combined. Oxfam’s theory of change was that shifts among the Big 10 would reverberate across the whole food system. 

Significant changes have been attributed to the campaign. For instance five companies, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestle and Illovo (Africa’s biggest sugar producer, part of ABF), committed to zero tolerance of land grabs in their supply chains; the first two also agreed to use their influence to resolve two land rights conflicts in their supply chain. Three companies , Nestle, Mars and Mondelez, made commitments to tackle gender inequality in their cocoa supply chains. Meanwhile on climate change, Kelloggs and General Mills set targets to reduce emissions throughout their supply
chain, a first in the food sector. 
Here are the key elements of the campaign strategy which have led to such positive results:

1. Race to the Top

The model of change was to use competition in the market to leverage a race to the top, by providing brand reward for leaders and brand risk for laggards. Oxfam compared the policies of competitors such as Coke and Pepsi, encouraging them to step up. We then scored and ranked companies against a scorecard comprising 7 themes relevant to agricultural sustainability, with the scorecard and campaign being managed in parallel. In a few instances, campaign actions against brands were dropped at the 11th hour when the company complied with Oxfam demands just before the deadline.

2. Critical Friend

The campaign message was not, ‘stop buying the brands you love’ but ‘change their behaviour’, drawing on the ‘critical friend’ concept that informs our wider model of private sector engagement, challenging where justified by the evidence, then giving credit where credit is due. Publicly celebrating these victories was important both for our influence with the companies and for motivating our supporters. For more on this see Irit Tamir’s blog: Critical Friends: The do’s and don’ts of corporate campaigning, Oxfam-style.

    You spoke Coca-Cola listened

3. Deep engagement

From the start Oxfam recognised that the campaign would be more effective if combined with other forms of pressure and reward. We consulted comprehensively with the target companies before the launch, and since February 2013 have undertaken behind the scenes advocacy engagement and responded positively when the targeted companies, and others, reached out for dialogue and advice. This has strengthened the arm of human rights advocates and senior management with the companies who are seeking to drive internal change.

4. Credibility

Oxfam has taken an evidence-based approach to the campaign. Behind the scorecard sat two years of research and consultation, involving industry experts, NGOs and academics, and the companies themselves. The scorecard is based on a rigorous analysis of company policies, while care is taken to ensure that asks of companies are realistic.

A high priority was given to burnishing the campaign’s credentials by securing the support of thought leaders and corporate investors. For instance, six months into the campaign, 33 major investment funds representing nearly $1.4 trillion of assets under management, including F&C Asset Management, BNP Paribas Investment Partners and Aviva Investors, published a collective Investor Statement expressing support for Behind the Brands and calling on food
industry giants to reduce social and environmental risks in their supply chains,  because ‘it is difficult to fully evaluate the risk and opportunity that our companies bear within their supply chains’. 

5. Public information only

Behind the Brands assessed publicly available information only, to incentivise transparency about policies, commitments and due diligence. It focused on agricultural sourcing from developing countries, looking at workers, smallholders and women, plus impact on communities and assessing awareness, knowledge, commitments and supply chain management. The emphasis on transparency has galvanised target companies to put far more information on their websites. 

6. Full Oxfam transparency

Oxfam has published the scorecard, all of the criteria it uses to assess companies, the assessments themselves, information sources, as well as a methodology guide, so that everything sitting behind the campaign is open to scrutiny. Consistent with our expectations of companies, we as an organisation want to demonstrate transparency and accountability .

7. Update scores and sharpen indicators

Indicators and company scores have been updated periodically. This has enabled scores to be revised when companies demonstrated progress on their policies or put new material into the public domain, on the basis of which, ratings and rankings changed. It has also meant indicators could be improved to ensure that they remain meaningful and continue to reflect best practice. For instance, new indicators were added on advocacy asks of governments, such as lobbying on progressive policies.

8. Engage the public

Information was made accessible and messages simplified to engage the public. The campaign has aimed to hold companies accountable for what is happening within their supply chains by mobilising consumers. Over the last 2.5 years, over 700,000 campaign actions have been taken: supporters have signed petitions, shared campaign materials via social media and engaged in offline stunts. The world’s leading food and beverage companies have responded to these actions with new corporate commitments on the Behind the Brands themes. 


The lessons from the campaign are encouraging, as Erinch Sahan highlights in his new blog: Pushing, pulling and the power of people; new horizons for corporate responsibility?. Global brands do listen to consumers and investors, and will add new issues to their agenda when the right voices join the public chorus.  

Encouraged by the success of Behind the Brands, Oxfam India this month launched the India Responsible Business Index which was developed in collaboration with Corporate Responsibility Watch, Praxis and Partners in Change. The index ranks the top 100 companies listed on Bombay Stock Exchange on their policies and disclosures on inclusion, to invite companies to engage on this issue.

But, how could benchmarks be used even more effectively to drive a race to the top in future? Future company rankings could incorporate ‘bottom up’ feedback from workers on employment terms and suppliers on commercial terms. More could also be done to encourage companies to publish meaningful data on the impact of their policies 

And perhaps in future the public could be invited to assess companies, even choose what to assess them on, to increase the universe of companies covered and then make the process more inclusive. The ‘pull’ factors of such campaigns also needs to be combined with ‘push’ factors: workers, farmers and communities having greater negotiating power and governments ensuring the rules of the game favour responsible companies.

This blog is based on a presentation developed by Erinch Sahan, with input from Irit Tamir and Danielle Smith

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Author: Rachel Wilshaw
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.