A view from Sarah Wolff

Pro-social branding: Why Unilever has got it right

Brands are buying into socially impactful moments.

Unilever's new cross-brand campaign, highlighting the social change achieved by its brands, is a highly visible example of a growing trend among advertisers to exercise and promote their social consciences at a time when "authority organisations" are not always "doing their bit".

For example, against significant odds, and aside from a couple of notable hiccups, the Rio 2016 Olympics will be remembered as an overall success. However, the Rio 2016 organising committee is increasingly under fire for effectively giving a flagrant two-finger salute to the Paralympic Games, due to begin next week. With venues closed and service levels slashed, it may be up to the performances and incredible back stories of the Paralympic athletes themselves to save the 2016 Paralympics from being remembered for its failings. 

Yet, in contrast to this unfortunate attitude from the organising committee, we are seeing a greater level of social conscience from brands and greater consumer desire (powered by the increasing importance of social media) to see brands address social, political and environmental problems head-on – a phenomenon highlighted by Unilever's new campaign.

Consumers are also consuming more responsibly, buying into fair trade, organic and socio-economically sustainable philosophies and products – and are demanding that their mainstream brands follow suit. In Germany, for example, 73% of consumers have stopped buying a brand due to ethical or environmental reasons and some 75% of Brits say they're more likely to trust and stay loyal to companies that actively try to make a difference (European Brand Association, 2015).

Pro-social branding picking up momentum

Not that this is a completely new trend. The pressure on brands to display a social conscience has been gathering pace for a few years now. Whether it’s fast food companies such as McDonalds condemning battery farming or cosmetics giant Dove endorsing "real beauty", this year brands will also focus on gender equality, racial justice, climate change and more. 

Driven by marketers who are moving beyond claims of sustainability and into strong stands on relevant social issues, these trends picked up momentum in 2015 and will be positively explosive in 2016. Pro-social brands and campaigns, such as Selfridges' "Everybody" campaign which celebrated the beauty of difference or Sport England's "This girl can" campaign which championed active women, are wonderful examples of the next step for companies looking to morally engage with consumers. 

Higher purpose to cut through cluttered newsfeeds

From Microsoft, featuring Robert Downey Jr giving a young boy a prosthetic arm, to UK retailers partnering with charities as part of their Christmas campaigns, advertisers are certainly showed their caring sides in 2016.

Gone are the funny one-liners and throw-away visual gags of old campaigns. In their place are a number of campaigns and brand experiences aligned to social causes designed to evoke strong feelings of sadness, warmth and inspiration.

It’s not that advertising has lost its sense of humour, it’s just that it has found a sense of higher purpose, no doubt prompted by the need to remain relevant among consumers’ increasingly cluttered social newsfeeds. Unilever's move is timely, indeed.

Sarah Wolff is an account director, qualitative research at Simpson Carpenter.