Opinion: Alex Clough Brand purpose is everywhere

Opinion: Brand purpose is everywhere

Alex Clough, creative strategy director at Splendid Communications, discusses the findings of the agency’s Brands’ permission to speak report into social purpose campaigns. 

Shaving brands are turning their backs on the stereotypical ‘real man’ to redefine what it means to be masculine. Mental health awareness is being championed by everyone from car manufacturers to broadcasters.

Fashion brands are putting increasingly diverse models on their runways and their photoshoots. Pride in London was backed by almost 50 official partners and a list of over 60 supporters, from Heathrow to Costa and our client, The AA.

But, as more brands jump on the cultural marketing and social purpose bandwagon, the impact on culture isn’t necessarily being measured. In fact, a study by Dentsu Aegis suggests 60% of brands that launch brand purpose initiatives are failing to measure the impact of their campaigns on society.

With no way to gauge the success of these social purpose campaigns, Splendid Communications wanted to find out if the public even really wants brands to share a point of view on culture and society. When, where and about what do they have the right to communication?

What do consumers think about brand purpose?

In partnership with Opinium and Pulsar, Splendid examined the role culture plays in modern marketing, the growing expectation that brands should have something to say about the world beyond their own products or services, and which topics these brands have permission to discuss.

Some 1,008 active social media users were polled, aged 18-55+, and, while there was a disparity between the opinions of older and younger audiences, the public at large either doesn’t think that (30%), or hasn’t yet decided if (34%), brands should project a voice about cultural issues.

That leaves just 36% who think brands should have a point of view on cultural issues. Clearly the jury is still out amongst the population at large. So, how did the 30th anniversary advertising campaign for Nike featuring Colin Kaepernick achieve such cultural and commercial success, given it was a blatant picking of sides in the debate around patriotism, racism and police brutality?

It was a huge risk, but a calculated one. Nike knows how polarised our world is, and they were happy to lose half their audience if the remaining half were to care, spend and talk more about the brand.

Our research suggests that younger audiences expect brands to adopt a cultural or societal stance, with 51% of respondents aged 18-34 believing that brands should have a point of view on cultural issues beyond their industry or product, and 56% of all respondents (18-55+) agreeing that brands have a responsibility to discuss social issues that are relevant to their consumers.

Finding the right issues

This means brands are tasked with answering a difficult question: if I have permission to speak, what social issues are relevant to my respective audience?

The public already seems to have agreed on some accepted cultural topics. Three in ten regular social media users would like brands to speak out on mental health issues and in north-east England, Northern Ireland and the West Midlands, people want brands to speak out on racism, too. But perhaps this is because they are already the topics on which they are used to hearing brands communicate.

Either way, brands need to tread very lightly. Asked what would make them unfollow a brand on social media, more than half (51%) said that they would unfollow if the ethics of the brand were not aligned with their own, or if the brand shared something they disagreed with.

While the industry is rushing to have ‘purpose’, many campaigns are struggling to prove any meaningful impact on society, making a lot of communications feel cynical. While some brands (like Nike) are getting it right, some are still struggling.

Brands need to find their voice and uncover when, where and about what they have permission to speak in relation to culture and society.

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