Once more with feeling: why brands need purpose in a post-truth world

Dove's 'Real Beauty' campaign

Brands have been jumping on the purpose bandwagon for some time now, but with the west mired in political uncertainty, is it time for advertisers to nail their colours to the mast and offer genuine purpose in a post-truth world?

‘Post-truth’ was declared 2016’s word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Last year’s 2000% increase in usage of the word is believed to have been fuelled by two arguably surprising events – the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory.

But in a post-truth world where emotion and personal belief seemingly hold more weight than fact, is there an opportunity for brands to provide the constancy our fragmented society craves?

“During times of uncertainty, consumers inevitably turn to brands, companies and people they can trust,” says Debbie Klein, chief executive for Europe and Asia Pacific at Engine. “As people are increasingly concerned about post-truths in advertising and news coverage, brands that can cultivate and maintain a meaningful relationship with their customers are the ones that are going to win in 2017 and beyond.”

To be meaningful, brands must be authentic and ethical, and there is a feeling that companies are increasingly aware of not just the opportunity but the need to change. “Honesty has often been used as a buzzword for business, but whereas in the past this might simply have been lip-service those values are starting to be examined more closely,” says Julian Pearce, corporate communications account director at brand consultancy The Propaganda Agency.

Leila Fataar, Diageo’s first head of culture and entertainment, wants the drinks producer’s brands to provoke conversation about issues such as equal marriage, and believes cultural marketing is about “authenticity” and “almost not advertising”.

She says: “If we put a big logo over something then it is just advertising, so it has to be more than just a pouring deal. We’ve got these brands that are iconic and there’s a real opportunity to do something that could actually have a real impact. I want to be able to say we were able to change something or one of our brands was able to help someone. If we can help and assist our fans then why shouldn’t we?”

Her team isn’t just an add-on to the marketing department, however; it’s crucial that purpose is woven throughout the business. “We’re not just a separate part of the marketing team. What we do is cascade how to make our brands culturally relevant throughout the business so that it becomes part of how we market. They don’t just give us a project and we get on with it. It’s about us, as experts, working with people internally – ecommerce, sales and customer marketing. Culture is the stuff of life and it’s everything around how we live today and that’s including the shopping journey. It’s more than a separate team doing an energy marketing job.

“Brands who don’t live up to their own billing are being found out.”

Lush is one example of a brand that has earned its authenticity. Lawrie Jones, the managing director of content marketing specialists 42group, says its client embodies what he calls “compassionate capitalism”.

“The company’s stance against animal testing is supported through a long-term financial incentive for those to develop alternatives. It’s a brand that actively supports the ethical stance it takes.”

Indeed, a number of brands are getting it right and have been investing in change for some time. James Turner who founded Glimpse, a creative collective for social good, says he has seen a “huge upswing” in concern and action from brands over the last 10 years.

“I used to work at Greenpeace and if you look at the journey a company like McDonald’s has been on with regards to deforestation in the Amazon, it’s clear that it is taking this seriously.”

Such tangible demonstrations of a brand’s principles are an effective way to underline values and win consumer trust, and social media has made it easier for companies to communicate their positioning. But as Turner says, while there is a huge opportunity for brands to tap into the current malaise and reach people, if it isn’t done well – and with honesty – it can prove damaging.

“People are increasingly savvy about companies that send out a couple of tweets about feminism while exploiting female workers in Asia. You’re exposed on social media, so it’s got to be done right.”

Turner adds that it isn’t about going after the “activist dollar”. Instead, it has to be “rooted in an authentic sense of purpose, backed up by real changes in the core business.”

According to Klein, consumers want to engage with “honest, transparent and genuine” brands, and savvy advertisers are waking up to this need. “You only have to look at body positive campaigns from brands like L’Oréal and Dove to see how quickly this shift is taking place. A lot of brands have been tapping into this opportunity for years, but the push to develop a positive brand image and sense of purpose is now even stronger,” she adds.

One of Engine Group’s most successful campaigns in the last year was ‘Missing Type’ for NHS Blood and Transplant, which ran across 21 countries and looked to encourage more blood donors by appealing to people to remove the As, Os and Bs – the letters that make up blood types – from their name.

But it’s not just important that brands appear genuine and caring, as Klein points out: “They have to bring their customers along for the ride as well. Successful campaigns build on this desire to get involved – using people power to share a powerful message and drive engagement with the brand itself.”

Businesses are now held to account more often than ever before, thanks to the wealth of information at consumers’ fingertips and the ability to swiftly amplify messages across digital platforms. The Propaganda Agency’s Pearce says this has paved the way for a more adept and strategic approach to brand communications, prompting businesses to communicate in a more ‘consultative way’.

“Many have talked about the ‘balance of power’ between a brand and a customer, but in recent years, what’s actually taken effect is a re-balancing, whereby accountability has increased and a more positive and progressive environment has become the norm.”

Nailing colours to the mast

As brands work to build a more collaborative and transparent relationship with audiences, those that know their market well may benefit from nailing their political colours to the mast. Ben & Jerry’s has often taken such a bold stance and Klein cites the company’s 2015 campaign to mark the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US, in which it renamed its Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavour I Dough, I Dough. The key is brands knowing what they stand for, she says. “One brand may not be able to be everything for everyone, but it should aim to be something important to its fans.”

For other brands, engaging in political messaging may not be appropriate and marketers should be wary of controversy for controversy’s sake. But that’s not to say they shouldn’t be brave in this post-truth world. As Turner says: “It might feel like a big chunk of the country is slipping into xenophobia and nativism, but there are millions of people out there who reject these ideas and want to see brands reflect their values. It’s time to get off the fence. Those that do will be rewarded.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Pearce: “Brand strategists should be able to give their clients the courage to take on the establishment, whether that be in the sphere of business or politics. It’s a brave new world out there, and the opportunity is greater than ever.”

This article was originally published in The Drum magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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