Doing good while doing well: brands betting on significance

Teresa Oca

8 June 2017

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In an era that is becoming more and more technified, the human being has more significance than ever. And we’ve taken so long to realize the impact that each of our actions has on society’s present and future. We live in the era of citizen and consumer empowerment. As a citizen, I make decisions ranging from political matters to my being part of an urban garden (for example); as a consumer, I choose those companies that contribute to creating a better world, thus helping their consolidation.

A third dimension gets added to the other two: that of the co-worker, in those companies that bet on empowering their employees fostering a flexible and autonomous working environment, and where their decisions take on a leading role, translating into an increased sense of belonging and in better results for the corporation. A wheel connecting the three dimensions of people through these three journeys (consumer, citizen, and worker, without forgetting partners) is thus created, generating an ideal environment where those so-called Human Centered Organizations operate.

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As consumers and citizens, we feel better buying products or supporting companies based on what they contribute to society. A feeling that digitization has allowed just now, and never previously: technology has given us greater access to information and at the same time serves as an amplifier (for better or for worse) of the citizen’s opinion. What if the global crusade against palm oil, or a movement born as a hashtag, #grabyourwallet, against brands with ties to Donald Trump, hadn’t expanded the way they did?

This, truth be told, isn’t new. Throughout history, the media has always had enough power to put certain objects into focus, like the food industry (by not talking about political parties) and to spread these crises “offline.” Currently, the number of variables that make up the who’s on top today and who’s on the bottom tomorrow board have multiplied, with the citizen playing a decisive role. The demanded transparency in information is such that a tweet from a customer is deemed more truthful than all the promises a brand transmits. Now we understand the success behind TripAdvisor?

What do we expect from a brand in the digital era?

Corporations have improved the customer experience by taking advantage of digitization’s many benefits in product development, as well as investing in innovative formats. At the same time, they’ve known how to move the 21st-century consumer’s demands to successful digital business models (for example, car-sharing and house-sharing platforms that are becoming more and more powerful). Everything converges in a comprehensive on and offline experience for the human being’s three dimensions: citizens, consumers, and workers.

We can find a good evaluation of citizens’ expectations for brands in the Meaningful Brands report from Havas: 75% of consumers expect that brands do something more than a contribution to our well-being, although only 40% think that they do so in practice. Another alarming statistic: 74% of consumers wouldn’t care if the brands they use disappear, denoting that brands are being rendered irrelevant.

Brand communications have, by and large, traditionally positioned themselves by transmitting a strong product benefit or consumer benefit. Now is when a third driver for success comes into the equation: the social or society benefit. As Andy Stalman reminds us, brands shouldn’t focus on merely existing or selling a product with certain qualities (something that they shouldn’t disregard). If they want to be relevant, they must bring something more to the table.

For many brands, this “something else” consists of donating a portion of the company’s earnings to a good cause, an idea that came onto the scene in the 90s during what was dubbed the “Golden Age of Corporate Social Responsibility” and still exists. We talk this way about ubiquitous actions, like banks sponsoring charity road races, or recycling programs in the textile sector, like H&M with its H&M Close the Loop campaign.

Brand activism: a differentiating element in this new era

Marketing activism plays an extremely prominent part in all of this, a movement that The Drum already defined in September 2015:

Companies are dealing with unprecedented speed of change, flow of information and scale of impact. The most disruptive brands respond by embracing their role as change agent and by enlisting their community as brand activists who fight their cause.

What’s the main difference between CSR and brand activism?

The companies that operate under the marketing activism umbrella have “Doing good while doing well” as their main mantra: it not only involves allocating part of your earnings to a cause, but also ensuring that the entire business model revolves around the chosen cause. What’s more, these companies breathe the cause.

One of the best examples of this high level of commitment is Lush. This company has revolutionized the world of cosmetics by completing two challenges: it has turned into a world-renowned maker of quality soap and natural products, without stopping to integrate three objectives in their corporate mission: respecting and defending animals, preserving the environment, and upholding human rights.

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Nonetheless, not all corporations that follow the activism handbook are recognizable at first glance.  Ben & Jerry’s, with its slogan “Peace, love, and ice cream,” was one of the first brands to give its social mission as much importance as its business one, a fact that is not that well-known to the average consumer. One of their major milestones was to integrate the famous 5:1 ratio, which meant that a high-level executive could only make five times what the employee with the lowest salary made.

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Brand activism vs. “Brand activism”

Brands operating under the activist marketing prism base their communication on “central values.” These values coincide with the highest rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs related to beliefs and ideals (belonging, esteem, recognition, self-actualization) we aspire to once we’ve met our basic needs, that brands need to reaffirm as well.

The controversy appears when brands that base their communications on instrumental values (price, flavor…) launch campaigns based on apparently central ideas (ideological factors), in an attempt to gain notoriety and connect with the audience. An example is Magnum’s Be true to your pleasure campaign for the cross-dressing and transgender community that extended itself as a separate call from the original campaign, or Nolita’s “No Anorexia” campaign. Many brands take advantage of these kinds of communications to “make noise” and connect with the audience by positioning themselves in favor or against a cause.

This tactic of positioning itself in favor or against something works, in the short-term at the very least. Brands also join in on a new trend and jump on the latest slogan bandwagon, just like what is happening now with feminist messages. Dior’s release of a t-shirt saying We should all be feminists and its acceptance and subsequent spread on Instagram at the hands of major celebrities has made them available in just about any typical clothing store.

It’s important to consider that not all companies have to support every single cause, given that it depends on the brand and its background, it will generate strong support or suspicion. Or has Airbnb’s #WithRefugees campaign gained the same acceptance as Starbucks’s Refugee Hiring initiative?

Relevance is a value, not something viral

What’s most important, above all, is to understand that those brands that are transparent while integrating “activist inputs” into different areas of their business model -whether it be social (protecting and defending groups), environmental, economic (financial policies), legal, labor (best place to work, wage parity), or political, are and will be the brands we need.

We’re looking for those that show a longing for real significance, not those that pretend to be significant with something viral.

Those brands have to breathe, inherently hold in their DNA what they want and know to make this world better. And they can justify it with results: otherwise, we can fall for those who do it just for show, who consumers inevitably criticize.

We’re entering a new era where brands are more rebellious than ever, loaded with activist inputs that usher a significant change in the value chain. Let’s be on the lookout for what’s to come.