Long ago, when times were simpler and customers less demanding, companies could sell their products by promoting their products.
Then, when trade globalized and the market became denser, it was no longer enough to advertise their products. You had to sell a lifestyle. These days, it’s not just the lifestyle that consumers shop into, it’s a whole mindset. The new generation of consumers want to know what a brand’s values are.
On social media there is no escaping brands shouting about their stance on the latest social issue. There’s Dove, who promotes body positivity, and Nike, who leads NFL legend Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled before a game in protest at police brutality, at the head of his campaign. There’s McDonald’s and its rainbow fries container during Gay Pride Week, Procter & Gamble’s #WeSeeEqual anti-gender campaign. The list goes on.
The socially conscious generation
The reason brands really want to show where they stand is because they don’t have a choice. They know that today consumers just don’t buy from a brand that doesn’t reflect their values.
According to a 2018 report by Edelman, two-thirds of consumers expect brands to clarify their values and position on important social issues. It was also found that half of respondents would choose, avoid, or switch to brands based on their attitudes towards social issues. And 65% of respondents said they would not buy from companies that stayed silent on questions when they thought they should have spoken out.
Another 2018 survey by DoSomething found that 67% of respondents would stop buying if a brand stood for something that didn’t align with their values. And if you align yourself with their values, you are on a winner. The controversial Nike ad starring Colin Kaepernick attracted record exposure, and in the post-air period it added $ 6 billion in value to the company. Nike took a risk and it paid off.
The advantages of “purpose marketing” are therefore undisputed. If you want to build loyalty to consumers – especially those in the Millennial and Gen Z age group – you need to be on one side when it comes to social values. However, when brands try to come across as “awake”, it’s all too easy to come across as fake, hypocritical, or just too harsh. And if you don’t quite get it right, the price can be painfully high.
Peloton is a brand that has discovered just how high that price tag can be. After highlighting its support for Black Lives Matter on social media, it later had to apologize for the lack of diversity in its own senior executives. And the deaf-mute commercial in which Kendal Jenner (who is definitely white) is handing out Pepsi cans to the police to bring peace to a protest against Black Lives Matter has sparked a backlash that will be remembered for longer.
The young generation of social media savvy consumers are ready, and extremely capable, to launch and mock a brand they consider piggybacking on social issues, culturally ignorant, or just plain hypocritical.
The key to navigating this moral minefield and avoiding the fate of Pepsi and Peloton is authenticity. It is not enough for a company to talk about its values or simply to claim that they stand for something.
If you pay lip service to a problem without meaningful action or “watch washing”, you will get noticed – and not in a good way. To be taken seriously, a brand must actually live the values in which it should be interested. To do this, you have to invest a lot of time and resources.
If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem
The best way to be authentic is to get your own house in order before doing anything else. If you want people to know that you care about gender equality, for example, then you should take a close look at your hiring process, diversity in your boardroom, levels of pay for employees of any gender, and every segment of your external and internal employees examine operations.
If gender equality is not clear at the core of your actions, invest in structural change. If you don’t, you are part of the problem you claim to be facing.
Don’t be still
There are brands that have missed the mark when it comes to taking a social stance and there are brands that haven’t even tried. Keeping silent on a big issue is not a good look.
Uber discovered this the hard way when it continued to collect fares during a taxi strike in protest of Donald Trump’s ban on nationals from seven countries. The hashtag #DeleteUber wasn’t the advertisement the marketing department wanted.
Own your mistakes and show how to correct them
If things could be better in your organization – more gendered or ethnically diverse, for example – then admit it. Be transparent about your mistakes and show what you are doing to fix them.
Starbucks gave a lesson on how to do that. In an incident in 2018, employees called two innocent black men to the police in one of their U.S. cafes and had them wrongly arrested. Starbucks responded quickly by closing all stores and providing special training for its employees. The company also honestly shared its position, admitting that it is “still learning”.
There is no shortcut
It is not enough to create a one-time campaign, make a large donation, or make a public statement. Brands that are authentic have to be “fluid”.
Do the hard work – make sure you really understand the topic and all of its nuances, then build your communication clearly and consistently over time. If your communication seems culturally ignorant or deaf, it can be worse than not interfering at all. Just ask Pepsi and Kendal.
Be both a trademark and an attorney
To be successful in purpose marketing, companies need to go beyond branding to advocacy. That means not making gestures or resorting to tokenism or just throwing money on the subject. It means taking a stand at an early stage, acting consistently and bringing these values directly to the heart of your corporate culture.