Once a brand’s purpose couldn’t be more explicit: create and provide excellent products and services. Now, with the rush for consumer-facing brands ready to embrace purpose-led marketing comes the expectation that brands must join the cultural discourse by taking a stand on high-profile social issues such as diversity, Indigenous equality, mental health, refugee rights, poverty and homelessness, inequality, human rights and climate change.
"Big brands don’t just have a voice in the marketplace, but also in society," Nitika Garg says, an Associate Professor in the School of Marketing at UNSW Business School who co-authored a study of consumer responses to brand activism.
"Brands share not only consumers’ wallets but also their attention, heart and emotions. With that comes an expectation. Now with social media, consumers are interacting with brands in a way they haven’t done in the past."
A resounding call
Research by media company Nine and market research firm FiftyFive5 found nearly 80 percent of Australians believe brands should use their power to make an impact for real-world change on social and workplace inequality.
While the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found young people aged between 14 and 17 are at the forefront of belief-driven buying and brand advocacy, with 84 percent buying and advocating based on their values eclipsing the rest of their generation, which tallies at 73 percent across the whole of Gen Z aged between 14–26.
"It’s a self-reinforcing behavior. Employees are increasingly choosing to work with valued-aligned businesses, and value-aligned employees are accelerating and accentuating the business purpose." – Dan Monheit
Behavioral science expert Dan Monheit of creative agency Hardhat says it’s also the brand’s employees driving the trend. "It’s a self-reinforcing behavior. Employees are increasingly choosing to work with valued-aligned businesses, and value-aligned employees are accelerating and accentuating the business purpose."
Yet corporations issuing statements about socially or politically divisive issues can upset some customers or stakeholders while appeasing others. Beyond that, brand activism comes with the genuine threat of social washing, which describes when a company’s social responsibility and commitments don’t match its real-life practice.
"Purpose as a marketing and advertising strategy becomes social washing," Garg warns. "It just takes one social media post to start the conversation whether the brand is faking it or doing it sincerely."
Walking the line
You may recognize social washing as a close cousin of the better-known greenwashing, whereby companies overstate their green credentials. In March this year, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission indicated they would be taking action against all forms of greenwashing. While social washing, also known as woke washing, is yet to be put to the same governmental scrutiny, but the dreaded public backlash is an all-too-present threat.
Jessica Vredenburg, Senior Marketing Lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, has conducted joint international studies into purpose marketing. She notes that in earlier iterations of brand activism, consumers were less willing or able to identify inauthentic activism.
"However, as brand activism becomes increasingly adopted, consumers are getting savvier, making it harder for brands to benefit from the marketing hype or taking a stance if it’s not backed up by authentic practice, aligned purpose and values or at the very least, evidence of a commitment to move in that direction," she explains.
"As brand activism becomes increasingly adopted, consumers are getting savvier, making it harder for brands to benefit from the marketing hype or taking a stance if it’s not backed up." – Jessica Vredenburg
Something seemingly innocuous as posting social media statements supporting International Women’s Day became a public relations nightmare when the Twitter account "Gender Pay Gap Bot" called out brands paying female employees less than their male counterparts, fueling a media frenzy.
However, Monheit says that while one-off attempts for cultural relevance are ill-advised, brands that present as allies have an essential role in creating significant social change.
"Brands always have had a role in shaping culture. People have lost faith in government and religion, so they look towards big business to lead the way, but it has to come from a place of authenticity; otherwise, it’s a risky strategy."
The real deal
So how do brands achieve authenticity?
"Brand can’t be everything to everyone and engage authentically on all societal issues that emerge as important," Vredenburg says.
"It’s better to focus on a quality over quantity approach. Increased purposefulness and evaluation of the fit between the cause and the brand (not only guiding principles but also product category and so on – what causes does it make ‘sense’ for the brand to engage with) is guiding some brands to selectively choose specific causes to engage with over others and communicate this purposeful decision when presented with causes outside their scope.
"For example, Patagonia is very clear in its focus on climate action. Although it makes its position known on other sociopolitical issues, such as abortion and gun control, most of its activist resources are directed towards climate action."
Garg agrees that purpose has to reflect in a brand’s policies, not just in its marketing. "It builds from the brand’s core attributes, as well as values, heritage and overall business practice," she says.
"Brands need to focus on one or two issues that best align with their principles and then model the brand’s values after them. Success comes from being thought-driven and led by the CEO and the senior management across different facets of the brand. Then it will reflect in their advertising strategy and social media campaigns."
"Brands need to focus on one or two issues that best align with their principles and then model the brand’s values after them." – Nitika Garg
Garg also says brands most likely already have that issue in-built. "If they don’t, then it’s not part of the culture right now," she says. "It’s a harder ask because you’re trying to ingrain something into the brand culture, which is currently not a part of it, but that’s where the progressive part comes in".
It’s worth pursuing, Vredenburg explains, as purpose is also excellent business practice.
"When a brand aligns with a cause, consumers may infer that the brand has certain desirable traits that not only resonate with their sense of self but also provide the opportunity for self-enhancement by promoting an identity associated with responsiveness to society making consumers feel good about themselves," she notes.
"This is a powerful driver. Overall, I would suggest there is a rise in the importance of committing to a cause, moving from campaigning to communication, leading with transparency, setting targets, acknowledging mistakes and focusing on internal education.
"In addition, companies can be advocates when they create campaigns to promote institutional change and provide financial support for groups engaged in creating social change."
Now that is pure of purpose.