If the great marketing of the past has been woven out of the beautiful art of storytelling, its future may involve facing up to a series of uncomfortable truths. For in an age where the divisions between public and private have been irrevocably broken by social media, consumers are placing brands under unprecedented scrutiny. Generation Z, the cohort that trend forecasters have identified as one of the most activist in history, is increasingly demanding that brands act as global citizens in their own right and move beyond the empty rhetoric of "marketing for good".
Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at J Walter Thompson, says the industry has reached a tipping point in how it approaches sustainability and social good. She explains: "The base-rate expectations of how brands should behave have risen across the board and brands are expected to live their values and be ethically minded." It is no longer enough for brands to simply "be less bad", they need to actively "do more good". However, Greene says the ad industry remains behind this curve, despite the fact Generation Z is coming to the fore and is prepared to invest more time and effort on ensuring brands deliver on their promises.
"The strategy is about designing brands with practical, societal and tribal values that appeal to consumers’ egos" - Raphael Bemporad, founding partner, BBMG
There is no question that brands and agencies are focusing more on defining and communicating their "purpose". However, Giles Gibbons, founder and chief executive of Good Business, says a lot of hot air is generated when talking about "purpose" but, in practice, it is very difficult to achieve meaningful change. The reality is that a brand’s sustainability drive is not always interesting to the consumer. "You can’t just look at it as marketing for good, you need to look at what the consumer wants and not every sustainability initiative is going to be something that sells a product to a consumer," he explains. Pointing to Unilever compressing the size of its deodorants to reduce their environmental impact, Gibbons believes some sustainability initiatives simply are not interesting to consumers. This does not mean they are not worthwhile and important, but brands must beware of hectoring consumers on how they should behave.
of US/UK millennials believe brands are more important to society today than in the past and should be accountable for public services and education; 75% think brands should act as cultural benefactors.
of US/UK millennials and Generation X believe brands need to "do more good" rather than just "less bad".
of millennials say they actively research the behaviour and policies of the brands they buy.
It will help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.
It will enhance the livelihoods of millions of people as it grows its business.
Its goal is to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of its products as it grows its business.
According to Bemporad, this desire is being driven by brands that recognise that consumers don’t want to compromise; they want the right thing to be the "cool" thing. "For a very long time, we’ve tried to sell the planetary benefits [of ethical consumption] but, in fact, it is about self-identification and ego gratification," he explains. In short, when brands answer the "What’s in it for me?" question, consumer purchasing patterns will shift.
However, many in the industry believe that marketers need to shift their focus from simply changing consumer behaviour to actively helping them bridge the gap between intent and action. Matthew Phillips, co-founder of Beautiful Corporations, explains that businesses need to move on from simply spouting lots of words about purpose and sustainability to taking action. "In the past, consumers have been given a choice – do you want to buy the ‘good’ product at a premium or a ‘bad’ one – and often the decision comes down to price. But we are going to see more brands offering consumers the option of ‘good’ or ‘good’." It is a shift, he believes, that has already been embraced by brands such as Ikea.
This is a long game for businesses and Phillips believes there is a huge opportunity for brands to push forward the sustainability agenda. Not least, by ditching the misconception that marketing for good is really only about marketing to millennials. "Marketers should be thinking about repairing the disconnect between older and younger generations and considering the issues these groups can bond and rally around," he explains.
Of course, this is not just a communication challenge. As businesses face up to a global resource crisis, they are operating in previously unimaginable ways. From Nike opening up its research on sustainable materials to the competition to Nestlé working with competitors to protect the future of its cocoa supply chain, this shift demands brands move outside their comfort zones.
"I see a whole series of issues on the horizon for the younger generation, which will challenge business behaviour," Chilcott says. "The resources our generation took for granted simply aren’t there any more; the degradation of the natural environment, being able to afford housing – it is a tough outlook." An outlook that means the authenticity of brand purpose – the nitty gritty of how a business truly behaves – will be under the microscope.
So while critics might argue that the hyperbole around purpose has left agencies claiming expertise in anything and everything but advertising or selling products, it is difficult to see a legitimate opt-out. Even for those marketers who admit their company has lacked integrity and doesn’t have a great purpose-driven story, there are always ways to help consumers and support employees. For while marketers and agencies ultimately want to "sell more stuff", this doesn’t negate the fact that humane capitalism is not only ethically sound but aspirational for consumers and employees.
"I can’t think of anyone who wants to work at a company with no integrity. This is not just about millennials. It doesn’t matter if you are 25 or 45, you want to be emotionally fulfilled," McGrath says.
Not every brand can support the scale and scope of Unilever’s bold sustainability plan but constraint and challenge can drive creativity. The examples are everywhere. Verizon Wireless opened up its retail stores in Louisiana to offer free calls, internet access and device charging to victims of flooding. Niche jeans brand Hiut Denim was launched in Cardigan, west Wales, with the aim of employing 400 people after the closure of Britain’s largest jeans factory. In the post-Brexit era, the opportunity for larger brands to act as true benefactors and bring manufacturing back to the UK is ripe for the taking.
Although it would be all too easy to tire of the rhetoric surrounding marketing for good and declare "peak purpose", the shift towards humane capitalism is just getting started. Looking ahead, Bemporad believes a new pact between brands and consumers will emerge. He explains: "From the point of view of brand strategy, it is about designing brands with practical, societal and tribal values that appeal to consumers’ egos." This is a pact that places marketing creativity at the heart of driving innovative, brave and, at times, uncomfortable creative solutions. This is the new race to the top and innovative brands are already in the starting blocks.
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