From selling to taking a stand: after social media, do brands now need to embrace social causes?

From selling to taking a stand: after social media, do brands now need to embrace social causes?

Alberto Maestri Published on 1/14/2021

The events of recent years, and particularly recent months, have pushed some brands and businesses to profoundly alter their raison d’être and the way they see themselves.

The direction of this shift can be summarised in two words: brand purpose.

To understand what these two key words really mean, and so work out the specific things you can do to take a stand on something that appeals to your target audience, I believe we first need to focus on the word ‘brand’. What does it mean, and why is it so essential for business owners, marketers and consumers alike?

What is a brand?

The word ‘brand’ has very old – some would say ancient – roots. But whether or not it actually stems from the practice of marking cows and other animals to show who they belong to is of little relevance here. What matters is the meaning of the word ‘brand’  now, in the world of marketing and business.

Who better, then, than Seth Godin, one of the world’s leading marketing experts, to come to my aid with an excellent definition from his wildly popular blog?

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer […] doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.

Godin’s words highlight the importance of brands in modern markets: actually, unless you have a monopoly, they are absolutely vital; a way to encourage people to choose your product or service rather than someone else’s. I always remember my political economics lecturer at university going on about the fact that all toothpastes were (and indeed still are) the same…

To conclude this section, I’d like to bring in another major figure from the world of marketing literature: Abraham Harold Maslow, a psychologist known for his famous hierarchy of needs, a motivational model that maps our needs and their evolution over time.

Maslow‘s scale is divided into five different levels, from the most basic (not only simple, but also essential, i.e. required for the individual’s survival) to more complex social needs. Individuals fulfil their potential by passing through the various stages, which must be completed in order. The needs he came up with are:

  • Physiological needs (hunger, thirst, etc.)
  • Safety, security and protection needs
  • Belongingness needs (affection and identification)
  • Esteem, prestige and accomplishment needs
  • Self-actualisation needs (discovering one’s own identity and fulfilling one’s expectations, and occupying a satisfying position in one’s social group)

Looking at this pyramid from a branding perspective, it is clear that brands often seek to fill psychological gaps connected to the needs for belonging (consider tribal brands like Harley-Davidson, Ducati and Vespa), prestige and success (did somebody mention Rolex and Ferrari?) and self-actualisation (here the first brand that springs to mind is undoubtedly Apple).

What has changed? Starting with ‘why’

I’ve just gone through the basics of branding and the classic reasons brands exist, but at the beginning of the article I hinted that in recent years, something has gone wrong.

Too much choice, too many purchasing options and too many brands led to a continual, inexorable widening of the gap between brands and people, not helped by numerous cases where an artificially constructed brand came unstuck in the face of a poor-quality product or service, or a lack of respect for people and the environment.

An early example of this that provoked outrage was Nike, which in the early 1990s received a lot of criticism following an international scandal where it emerged that many of its products, sold on Western markets at high prices, were made by third-party companies using forced child labour with terrible working conditions.

But even leaving scandals aside, in those years, and in the decades that followed, it seemed that brands were no longer able to give products (often with similar levels of performance) that decisive competitive edge.

So what was the solution? A breakthrough came from Simon Sinek, unknown at the time, and now one of the most influential and popular motivational speakers in the world, in a fantastic TED talk that has gone down in history entitled How Great Leaders Inspire Action’. I highly recommend you give it a watch.

In his presentation, Sinek tries to figure out and describe why the Wright Brothers or Apple managed to become so famous and iconic, despite selling products and coming up with innovations that many other people were working on at the same time. And he does this using a simple diagram he calls The Golden Circle.

Sinek ends by underlining the importance of not being obsessed by the what, i.e. the actual products or services on offer, where competition in terms of function and performance is increasingly tough, but instead focusing on and communicating the why, or the purpose – the genuine, profound reason why the business owner, manager or business is on the market.

The importance of this reason was reinforced by Stefano Chiarazzo, an expert on digital reputation and the author of Social CEO. Digital reputation and brand advocacy for managers who leave their mark [only available in Italian], whom I asked for his personal take on the subject.

Answering the question “Why do you exist? And how can you improve my life?” is a real challenge. And it is what all – and I mean literally all – stakeholders are asking business managers and organisations. Businesses and brands guided by a strong purpose, a profound and inclusive goal that goes well beyond simply making a profit, also enjoy the best reputation. And reputation is business.

In addition, we expect all this from businesses, at least according to the 2020 edition of the Edelman Barometer report, a global study dedicated to measuring people’s level of trust. The analysis shows that individuals are ever more sceptical about public institutions, and increasingly expect companies to act on their behalf instead: to take a stand and tackle the major issues that grip, terrify and intrigue us, like the future of work, working conditions, how products are made, the green economy, and so on.

Some thought-provoking examples

Now let’s go from what people have said to what some brands have actually done.

Below are some interesting case studies of companies that have developed their own brand purpose and turned it into a genuine communication tool and a way of gaining a sustainable competitive advantage. I’ll discuss Patagonia, Temakinho and the (ambivalent from a brand purpose perspective) #BlackLivesMatter movement.

1.Patagonia. Don’t Buy This Jacket

An advertising campaign like this was always going to cause a stir. Especially considering that the first advert appeared in the New York Times on 25 November 2011, when crowds of people were queueing for Black Friday. The full case study can be explored on the Patagonia website.

The message came across loud and clear: in a period of huge waste, and during days of frenzied shopping, the company gave up some of its income by advising everyone not to buy its products, in order to avoid pollution, to give the products people already owned a new lease of life, and to save money, given the financial crisis affecting the world at the time.

Whichever way you look at it, Patagonia once again proved it was brave and true to its values, and in return it received a lot of praise and ‘brand love’ even from people who weren’t its usual customers.

2.Temakinho. The first chain of restaurants with Friend of the Sea certification

For several years now, Temakinho has been synonymous with samba sushi, high-quality fusion cuisine in a stylish and fun environment.

So far nothing new: but guess what allowed this extremely successful format to develop from a single restaurant in Milan to an international chain with dozens of restaurants and millions of pounds of turnover. That’s right: its purpose.

The world is full of high-quality fusion cuisine. What Temakinho managed to achieve, and communicate with a great deal of class (see, for example, the dedicated section on its blog), was becoming the first restaurant chain to be awarded Friend of the Sea certification.

In a period when many raw fish restaurants were springing up, but also one marked by growing attention to environmental sustainability, this made the difference. Customers not only felt they were dining in a cool and fashionable space, they also understood they were eating in an ethical environment, somewhere that was fun but also treated everyone with respect. This shows that having a purpose does not have to mean being preachy; on the contrary, the more purpose there is, the more everyone enjoys themselves.

3.#BlackLivesMatter. Brand purpose, or Black Power-washing?

In recent months, there have been increasingly powerful protests in support of people of colour, in part due to several horrific videos that emerged showing white police officers beating or even killing defenceless individuals.

Many brands have joined the protesters: Lego, Ben & Jerry’s (see image below), Glossier, Netflix, l’Oréal, Reebok, Old Navy and many more besides.

However, not all the brands involved have been praised for their aims.

Indeed, situations like these tend to highlight brands’ consistency and authenticity, particularly as the web takes no prisoners. For example, some tech companies (Amazon, YouTube and others) that sought to show their support for the black community received strong criticism because they were guilty of having previously supported business behaviour that was not always transparent or humane. The magazine Fast Company even gave a name to these empty gestures: Black Power-washing.

Understanding and taking part in a people-driven evolution

As I said before, brands are born artificially, but if they have a purpose at their centre they can become one of us, with many benefits for the planet, society and the economy.

Regardless of the size of the company, the sector they work in or who is in charge, all organisations (including yours!) can become purpose-driven. You just have to follow a few guidelines.

  1. Be consistent. As soon as you decide to take a short-term or fleeting approach to the topic, it’s a lost cause. Your purpose must define your positioning and shape every action you take – from choosing the napkins for your staff canteen to how you interact with your customers. Basically, it has to become a genuine platform for conveying meaning.
  2. Be sensible. Having a purpose is (unfortunately) becoming a minefield, something lots of people talk about, but very few actually act upon. It is up to you to choose the correct path to follow and the right travel companions. The effectiveness and efficiency of the project depend on it!
  3. Choose something you believe in. Most importantly, if you don’t believe in it – and I don’t blame you! – or you don’t think you can do it consistently (point 1) and rationally (point 2), don’t even bother trying. You’ll just end up wasting time, money and other precious resources. As Simon Sinek and Stefano Chiarazzo remind us, the why stems mostly from businesses’ vision and mission, or from the people running them. Before acting, look inside yourself.

If you are interested in this subject and want to read more on the topic, I recommend the latest effort from Philip Kotler, a self-styled ‘father of modern marketing’. It’s called Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action. The name says it all 😉

From selling to taking a stand: do brands need to embrace social causes?

All brands have business aims when they are founded, but some take things further. An article investigating brand activism.