Society Wants More From Brands

Chris WrenJune 22, 20174 min

Here on Branding Strategy Insider, we’ve written numerous thought pieces on the perils and opportunities for brands that address important and often heated social issues. We noted earlier this year that across the globe, trust in institutions is failing, especially in government and media, with business just being over the water-line. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that 53% of people believe the system is failing them. And the recently released Earned Brand study shows 51% of people believe brands can do more to solve social problems than their government.

But which brands? And for which problems? As the cultural conversation becomes increasingly dominated by often competing ideological views, what consumers believe is more important than ever. The report goes on to show that 30% of consumers will make belief-driven purchase decisions more than they did three years ago. Among these belief-driven buyers, 65% of them say they will not buy a brand when it stays silent on an issue they feel it has an obligation to address.

But already 2017 has seen many brands attempting to ‘join the conversation’ on top issues like immigration, gender equality, the environment and racial/ethnic divisions. The brands that have done this successfully are usually the ones who have some element of the social issue baked into their culture and purpose. Starbucks can take on Immigration because it has prioritized the hiring of refugees. REI can take on the environment, AirBnB for racial and ethnic divisions. These brands have taken meaningful actions that can justify the brand’s position.

But some brands have made the mistake of talking before doing, which almost always leads to problems. Co-opting culture will only serve to further weaken trust in business. Instead, these brands need to do some soul-searching to discover what they truly care about, and can articulate why they care. Consumers will want to see they’ve committed money, time and influence to the issue, and that they are living and operating in ways that promote, advance, or solve the problem. Edelman’s research shows these issues as being the most important among consumers.

Here are some additional considerations for brands seeking to answer society’s call:

  • The Environment: This is the only issue that doesn’t include any actual people, so it is the safest and least controversial to explore. Lifestyle brands like REI and Patagonia are the most natural because their products are usually best enjoyed in the environment. But, since every brand requires resources, every brand can find something they can do to add value.
  • Gender Equality: While open wage discrimination isn’t legal in much of the western world, data shows us the women typically earn less, are not equally represented in leadership, and face other challenges not typically encountered by men. Audi made an emotive plea earlier this year for gender equality without considering it had no women in board-level positions. As a company dominated by engineers (a field where only 10% of grads are women), it makes logical sense that a brand like Audi might offer the same opportunity for both men and women but the outcome of who they choose may seem skewed. A better play for Audi would have been to aggressively set up funding to drive STEM initiatives for women in order to help create the talent the brand requires.
  • Immigration: A global society thrives on diversity and global brands are no exception. Many technology companies strongly condemned the US restrictions announced last February, and offered legal support to employees using a work visa. The most extreme aspects of immigration are those surrounding the global migrant and refugee crisis. Starbucks and Chobani are successfully implementing programs that help employee refugees in desperate need of work, which can help accelerate cultural assimilation.
  • Racial/Ethnic Inequality: When elements of racism were exposed at AirBnB, they took action, changed core functions of their platform, and addressed the need for diverse internal representation. Time will tell if those actions are enough, but largely they seem well-received.

It’s no longer enough to be #trending, and while a point-of view is a good place to start, what’s more important is acting on that point of view. Each of these issues present opportunities every brand can take some action in – because it’s the right thing to do. For brands that fully commit to an issue that is well aligned to their reason for being they will find a welcome place in the movement.

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  • Neil Hopkins

    June 23, 2017 at 12:38 am

    Hi Chris,

    “Talking before doing” – absolutely hits the nail on the head. The context in which a brand shares its messaging and invites participation has to be inward, as well as outward, facing!

    On the environment point – can you elaborate on your thinking a bit? The notion that it “doesn’t include any actual people” is an interesting one: the environment is pretty crucial to us as living beings on a number of levels.
    If (as I suspect) you mean that the vast vistas of nature don’t have a face which can be put to them, I wonder if this is a disconnect behind some people’s misuse of the environment (e.g. through littering or other behaviour) or their sense that they ‘can’t do anything about global warming’ because they can not see their place within it?

    What do you think?

  • Chris Wren

    June 28, 2017 at 8:51 am

    Neil – great comment, and YES with regard to the environment I meant it does not have a face, skin color, gender or belong to a political party. Given how polarized the topics of gender and race have become, I can’t imagine any brand treading into those subjects and escaping the outrage of either someone with cause to be offended, or more likely, someone who has decided to take offense on behalf of someone else. You bring up a great point though. Perhaps the pace of society, the uncertainty, and whatever else has made it difficult for the *environment* brand to break through in a way that is meaningful and personal. And we know how much people in general care about weak brands 🙂 We’ve seen the same thing with storms – when a devastating storm passes through but it has no name or concept, it is harder to get news coverage and even more difficult to mobilize relief. But when the storm is branded/named like hurricanes – it’s much easier for people to grasp the magnitude.

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