We live in troubled times. Despite the tremendous advancements in technology, the world faces climate crisis, violence, poverty, discrimination and hatred.

Should brands take a stand?

Multiple studies say that people expect corporations to contribute to society. A report by Unilever shows a third of consumers buying from brands based on their social and environmental impact.

Brave stands by brands with a clear purpose can produce favourable financial performance. Unilever’s report claims that their brands that “have integrated sustainability into both their purpose and products are growing 30% faster than the rest of the business.”

Another study from Harvard Business Review and Ernst and Young called The Business Case For Purpose showed that companies with “a strong sense of purpose are able to transform and innovate better, while it also helps to improve employee satisfaction.”

Key stakeholders: Employees

Smart companies know that their own employees are especially attuned to what that brand stands for in the public eye. Some of the top ads that ran during the 2017 Super Bowl — like the brilliant Budweiser immigrant story of founder Adolphus Busch — were a way to signal to employees that the corporation they work for values the multi-cultural nature of their workforce. (In spite of the current administration’s regressive attitude, almost all families in the US cherish their own immigrant stories of ancestors who came to America looking for a better life. My grandmother went through Ellis Island on her own as a teenager from Poland and met and married a first generation Irish American; I’m a direct result of this melting pot.)

Corporate Social Lobbying

Even before the 2016 election in America, immigration issues were a major concern for tech giants like Google and Facebook that employ high-skilled foreign workers. Indeed some, like Google and Yahoo, were co-founded by an immigrant.

People who think brands have no place in anything political forget that for decades major corporations have hired public affairs professionals to represent their interests. As part of our specialist services, H+K has a bipartisan team of legislative and regulatory strategists that help clients navigate this space.

What’s different now is that brands driven by purpose are following the same north star in their marketing communications as they do in public affairs. Activism has entered mainstream culture. Going beyond the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs of the past, purpose-led companies are merging these efforts into the spotlight of their advertising and PR programs.

And responsible brands are willing to be accountable for the value of these programs. In 2017 for example, H+K helped Pampers bring their 11 year old partnership with UNICEF against maternal and newborn tetanus to a new audience at the WEF in Davos with the launch of a health economic study showing the return on investment in financial terms. Another proof point that the Pampers brand stands for more than diapers, and acts on its “dedication to every baby’s happy, healthy development”. Having a clear purpose is a tremendous advantage for brands new and old.

Purpose as a creative platform

Airbnb didn’t have to agonize about taking a stand in their own Super Bowl ad, ‘We Accept’. Their stated mission of helping people “belong anywhere” naturally leads to creative expressions of this commitment. And they prove this promise via actions like fighting any discrimination by hosts and providing donations and housing for refugees.

What’s interesting is that more established travel brands are getting on board. Expedia launched an ad about connecting across cultures during CNN’s coverage of the US presidential inauguration, and Hyatt ran a message of acceptance during the Oscars.

Being a part of a bigger community is a hallmark of social conscious brands but it can be expressed in small everyday actions as well as costly TV adverts. A team from my agency worked with local mall client Westfield on an Easter weekend activation called ‘Revamp Camp: Customise your Closet’. In collaboration with charity Save the Children, the workshops showed kids creative ways to dress up old clothes and keep them out of the landfill.

A Higher Purpose vs The Bottom Line

“It’s not a principle until it costs you money,” said Bill Bernbach back in the day.

I was impressed in 2014 when CVS proved its transformation from a drugstore to a healthcare company by being the first major pharmacy chain to stop selling cigarettes, even though tobacco products added $2 billion a year to their bottom line. Not only was this a measurable, positive effect on public health, CVS Health Corporation overall sales have been up in the last three years. CVS has continued to champion this cause with their marketing dollars, partnering with health organizations to help achieve the first tobacco-free generation with their “Be The First” campaign.

Now in its second year, outdoor recreation retailer REI’s much awarded #OptOutside program is more of a movement than a marketing campaign. By closing all its stores on Black Friday, America’s biggest shopping day of the year, REI proved its commitment to outdoor adventure was more than an ad slogan.

What I especially like was how much this decision had to do with consideration for the REI staff, who are outdoor enthusiasts themselves. For the first time, they got the day off.

REI’s CEO reports that “after #OptOutside we saw a 100% increase in applications for jobs in Q4 and our retention is double our retail competitors.” More proof that people want to work for a company who respects them and acts on their values.

Empathy + Respect

For 2017, REI launched a new public effort called ‘Force of Nature’, a program designed to bring gender equity in the outdoors.

60% of women say that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women’s, according to REI’s 2017 National Study on Women and the Outdoors. Yet 72% of women say they feel liberated or free when they are outdoors and over 85 percent of all women surveyed believe the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness and overall well-being.

So the company, which was co-founded by Mary Anderson, will focus their marketing efforts on women in 2017 to combat current male-dominated imagery of people in the outdoors.
Plus, REI pledged one million dollars to like-minded nonprofits, will offer women-centered events and classes and is working with vendors to develop more gear tailored to women.

This empathy and respect for their female customers reminds me of the equally empowering ‘This Girl Can’ movement from Sport England which encourages all women to be active.
Fighting Back

There is no doubt we are in a cultural shift or course correction that seeks to end decades of tired clichés and stereotypes about women.

Madonna Badger, 2017 Ambassador for the Cannes Lion’s See It Be It program pinpoints the advertising industry’s responsibility in the negative portrayal of women. Her #WomenNotObjects movement has had a real effect, as have many brands who are finding a fresh creative way to speak with their consumers and a boldness in addressing issues of discrimination.

A personal favourite comes from ANZ Bank in Australia. ‘Pocket Money’ which shows girls getting paid less for chores than their brothers is the most charming argument against the wage pay gap I’ve ever seen. And part of a bigger program called #EqualFuture designed to help achieve financial gender equity.

ANZ is a shining example of a brand being active in an area where they have a clear right to play. This is a key factor in successful brand activism.

Another example of fighting back that addresses a serious issue is from a small store in Germany that made a big statement.

To combat neo-Nazi graffiti polluting Berlin neighbourhoods, a paint store enlisted street artists to ‘#PaintBack’ by transforming the swastikas into flowers, bunnies and other happy images. They took a visible stand against hate in a creative way — and won the 2016 Eurobest Design Grand Prix as a bonus.

Be Bold for Change

That was the theme for the most recent International Women’s Day. And it is great advice for any brand built around a purpose. We live in troubled times. Brands can and should be part of the solution.

Follow @CandaceKuss
Cross-posted from WPP BrandZ: The Purposeful Age