Telling an ethical story is fast becoming the norm because customers want to know that the businesses they deal with or the products they buy do the right thing. This can mean adopting an ecological or social conscience, and doing something significant to demonstrate it.
Nowadays fewer people want to buy coffee produced by slave labour, wear jeans made in sweatshops or use gadgets that needlessly pollute the environment. It’s why a brand like Ecover has quietly produced biodegradable detergents for decades but has only recently talked up its ethical credentials with the #letsliveclean campaign.
It’s also why Maltesers chose to tap into equality and disability issues in its advertising, winning awards for doing so, despite having no explicit link to these respective communities or issues. And it’s why Pepsi attempted to tap into social unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement with model Kendall Jenner in 2017 – although in this case the attempt failed miserably.
How can some brands so brilliantly capture a movement, a concern or a principle and slot it neatly into their marketing like the final piece in a jigsaw, yet others can try to do the same and yet end up in the proverbial stocks?
Think incredibly hard about it
Most brands do consider embedding a sense of purpose into their work, but balk when they understand the implications. Stuart Lewin, Founder and Creative Director at BTL Brands based in E1 Studios in Whitechapel specialises in managing new, usually high-end companies like Swedish amplifier manufacturer Engström & Engström and cashmere apparel store Milk. Lewin manages the process of developing the brand, including its purpose. He says there often comes a point when the brand has to decide whether it’s really worth bringing purpose into the running of its business.
“We try to explain that there are so many start-ups that it’s difficult to make a difference. It may well come down to eco footprint and sustainability,” he says. “We have that conversation every time.”
Joel Gardner is Director at Theobald Fox, a creative agency representing brands including SpaceNK, Transport for London and the Tate, based at Clerkenwell Workshops in Farringdon. He recommends putting extra thought into what you plan to do, and really look at yourself rather than the customer to get that purpose nailed down.
“Many brands worry too much about their audiences and what they want, instead of what their brand can actually offer their audience. But sometimes it’s better to look internally. What can you offer to your potential customers? That more clearly defines a brand. And what that means is staying true to that core offering and being consistent with it.”
Make your stance clear but don’t put people off
Muddled messaging means consumer confusion. Mike Buonaiuto is Executive Director at social-change communications agency Shape History, which is based at The Record Hall in Hatton Garden. Shape History specialises in working with charities including The Terrence Higgins Trust, The Malala Fund and the UNHCR.
“Think of the wider perspective – why? What is the power businesses can hold in making political change? Why are others not doing that?” he says. It’s an excellent question. Those brands that stand for something both stand up and stand out. However, nobody likes to be lectured or made to feel bad about their behaviour. Here lies another lesson for a brand with a purpose. You can overdo it. Hugh Stevenson, Managing Partner at Anatomy Brands, based at Kennington Park, works in the food, leisure and placemaking sectors for brands including HCA Healthcare UK, cinema chain The Light, and socially conscious finance brand, Horizons. Stevenson says, “It’s possible to be too worthy. Your purpose should be at the heart of your story but if you overdo it you can turn people off. It has to be authentic.”
Subtle can be powerful. Taxi-hailing company Lyft recently offered people free rides to the March For Our Lives anti-gun protests across the US, which made a clear, effective stance, and introduced them to a new, younger audience.
Control everything you possibly can
Purpose puts the focus and the onus on your brand to really walk the walk. Stevenson says, “You have to have the right policies and training and it has to come from your values, which must be embedded in how you develop your staff appraisals, job descriptions and marketing. It all has to be checked against those values. “It’s common- sense stuff, but when you get to a certain size it can be difficult,” he explains.
Executives at major high-street clothing companies like Gap and Primark have awoken to public outcry and negative publicity when their products have been found to be produced by people working in dangerous or sweatshop conditions. Primark now ensures that factories sign up to its code of conduct, based on standards set by the Ethical Trading Initiative, which covers things like pay and health and safety. The company also sends an auditor to a factory before placing a first order. Supermarket chain Tesco now produces a report on modern slavery and food production, which showcases the efforts the company is making to eradicate the fruits of slavery from its shelves.
Pick your moments
Sometimes the notion of “always on” advertising can dilute a brand, says Gardner. He gives the example of jumping on predictable holidays like Christmas, Easter or Valentine’s Day. “It often looks a bit try-hard; scattering the brand too wide.
It’s needless, particularly for brands who want to have relevant conversations and connections with their audience. It can sometimes achieve the opposite effect, as it seems insincere. And you’re better off saying nothing at all than to be perceived as insincere.” He recommends that brands focus on their purpose and really stick to it when reinforcing it, instead of “spread betting their comms”.
Get your staff on board
If your staff can’t get on board then you have a problem. With staff as advocates for what you do, everything becomes easier.
Stevenson says, “Having a clear purpose is a good way to attract and retain staff. Millennials care less about material gain and are more interested in making a difference. They understand the career path is broken and they may not be able to buy a house, and the world is in a mess. What’s important? Working with a company that makes a difference,” he says.
Elliot Ross is Co-founder and CEO of email marketing specialists Action Rocket, based at Clerkenwell Workshops in Farringdon; his clients include Global Radio and Marks & Spencer. He says a brand’s relationship with its staff can be a powerful one, and if it has purpose then staff can act as ambassadors. This can be seen in outdoor-clothing retailer Patagonia and ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s. “It makes such brands an attractive company to work for. They get to offer a change of lifestyle and campaigns can really get staff engaged,” he says.
Be careful with overtly political campaigns
Brands have lobbied governments on particular issues to great effect but it’s a risky area as it may necessarily be divisive. Companies should think very hard about overtly political campaigns. Ross says, “When brands align themselves politically it’s a lot more challenging. Something as obvious as taking sides on Trump or Brexit is still very risky. There is not much value in it and it can cause problems.”
This is arguably how soap brand Lush made a misstep with its recent “SpyCops” campaign. Lush has always incorporated purposeful campaigns in its marketing. “SpyCops” attacked the policy of undercover police officers infiltrating direct action groups – some were embedded for years and even started families with genuine activists.
The Lush campaign seemed a little odd for a company selling bath bombs, and also appeared to directly target the police. Many members of the public and the police were unhappy, and vented their anger via social media. Lush dropped the campaign.
This misstep could have finished a less confident brand, but experts say that Lush has such a strong reputation for purpose that although this campaign was executed clumsily, it may actually reinforce its overall purposeful message.
Don’t talk from both sides of your mouth
There are other, more subtle challenges to communicating your purpose. Consider the World Cup in Russia, which happened to coincide with the annual LGBT Pride festival. There is a very good reason why brands should not have sponsored both: Russia’s lamentable track record on LGBT rights. Yet some World Cup sponsors also sponsored Pride, such as beer company Budweiser, and campaigners called them out on this hypocrisy.
Win an award
Awards can be a good way to show your purposeful credentials and to produce more publicity. The annual festival of creativity
at Cannes often awards its top prizes to charities and campaigns with purpose.
This year was no exception. LadBible website lobbied on plastics in the ocean, developing the notion of a nation made entirely of ocean rubbish that would be recognised by the United Nations, because this would give other nations the responsibility of cleaning it up.
It didn’t quite pull it off but the campaign attracted more people to join “Trash Isles” than some real nations, including a raft of celebrities, and developed its own “Debris” currency, a flag and a passport. It also won the Grand Prix in Design at Cannes Lions, an international advertising event.
Think like a charity
The charitable sector has a lot to teach businesses, says Buonaiuto. “The clarity of message is often better in brands than charities. But brands need to give back as part of their work, by making this a daily habit and having the morale that charities have." This also attracts more committed workers. Buonaiuto says, “People stay at organisations because it allows them to pursue their own causes,” he says.
Lewin says that his transition from working in a large agency to setting up his own creative shop has been instructive. “I gave up a comfortable salary to work on an uncomfortable salary, but creatively I’m happier.” BLT Brand’s purpose is to create new brands, or improve existing ones, and bring them to life in bold and distinctive ways. Was the pay cut worth it, to put that purpose front and centre stage? “Absolutely,” he says.
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