Do the right thing: how brands are embracing humane capitalism

Brands are moving beyond the hype of 'marketing for good' to embrace humane capitalism as they attempt to appeal to a new wave of consumers who want their products to be aspirational as well as ethically sound.

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.

Millennial concerns


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.

Source: JWT Intelligence/Sonar 2015

A genuinely shared purpose

To date, many "marketing for good" campaigns fail to answer two fundamental questions: "How does this involve the consumer?" and the perennial marketing favourite: "What’s in it for me?" Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer at Karmarama, warns that there can be an implicit "arrogance" in purpose and marketers should "rewrite it to make it genuinely shared". He explains that while purpose has remained a key focus for many brands, the lens through which it is viewed and activated is beginning to shift. "What we started out doing was talking about purpose in isolation but now we are focused on a shared purpose," he explains.

Indeed, a significant cultural change is afoot and, five years from now, the worst extremes of certain industrial practices, such as battery farming, may seem like a horrific relic of a bygone age. "It wasn’t so long ago that ethical consumerism was very much a prestige intellectual pursuit of the middle classes. But what we have seen is a democratisation of that space at scale," Mark Leigh, chief strategy officer at Verbalisation, explains. 

While it is easy to dismiss the focus on purpose as a soon-to-be tired micro marketing trend, at its heart lies the dominant macro question of our age: how can a projected nine billion people live well on a single planet with finite natural resources, an ageing population and the looming spectre of climate change? It is a question that suggests the focus on sustainability, purpose and ethics is no longer a choice but a genuine business imperative.

Martin Chilcott, founder and chief executive of 2degrees, the world’s largest community for sustainable business that works with brands including Unilever, believes that as businesses face up to a deep crisis in their supply chain, we will see huge investments in sustainable business, driven by "enlightened self-interest". 

However, how brands communicate their commitment to both doing good and being good remains something of a challenge. Chilcott believes that when it comes to talking about the real stuff that businesses are doing, they become nervous about putting their work in front of consumers out of fear it will be viewed cynically. From a structural perspective, many of these initiatives are driven by supply-chain managers and chief purchasing officers, who simply want to focus on outcomes and fear placing any potential mis-steps under the microscope.

Cultural branding

This is not to say that marketers, as the voice of consumers in their organisations, don’t have a leading role to play in ushering in this new era of sustainable capitalism. In fact, some experts believe that far from reaching "peak purpose", brands will become more vocal in driving the greater good. Christian Ward, head of media and marketing at trend consultancy Stylus, says that consumers have become more engaged with politics in the post-Brexit and hate-fuelled Trump era, which means brands need to be more forthright. He explains: "Brands are keeping up with the speed of culture. If the conversation is about race and gender and you don’t engage, you bland yourself out of culture."

This shift towards cultural branding has led to some previously unimaginable marketing strategies. Starbucks faced a social-media backlash in March 2015 after it waded into race-relations debates with its "#RaceTogether" campaign. The initiative, which included full-page ads in major US newspapers asking "Shall we overcome?", was designed to spark dialogue about racial tensions in the US. Speaking to shareholders at the company’s annual meeting, Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks, said: "Our intent is to try to elevate the national conversation. Because we’re willing to jump into the deep end of the pool... I think others will follow us."

Whether you view Starbucks’ campaign as brave branding or a cynical marketing ploy, there is no question that marketers are increasingly looking beyond communicating functional or emotional benefits. Raphael Bemporad, founding partner of BBMG, believes a tectonic shift in marketing is already afoot. He explains: "For the past 20 years, the ethical choice was presented as an obligation – for example, to buy a certain product to support local farmers. But we reached a ceiling on this obligation and now it is being redefined as desire."

Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan



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.

New aspirations

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.

Culture clash

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. 

Creative capital

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.

The aspirational consumer

The gap between what consumers say they want (more ethical brands) and what they then go on to purchase has long been the biggest challenge for marketers. Building on global insight from more than 22,000 respondents across 22 international markets, BBMG and GlobeScan have identified a new breed of "aspirational consumer", who combines a love of style, social status and sustainability with a desire to shift cultural norms. It is a cohort that will bridge this "intent gap".

This aspirational generation is not defined by age but by their desire, as consumers, for brands to act in such a way as to meet their needs, make a positive impact on others and connect them with an ideal or a community bigger than themselves. Representing 39% of the global adult population, Aspirationals are motivated by a sense of idealism and a desire for their purchases to make a positive impact.

Aspirational consumers feel guilty when they are not living up to their own expectations. They try to live a life that balances their responsibility to the planet with their desire to express themselves and buy things. However, they hold an innate sense of optimism and a belief that their actions can make a difference, even in the face of profound economic, political and social challenges.

To remain relevant to Aspirationals, brands must offer societal and cultural benefits that deliver against deeper human needs and goals. In the context of these shifting expectations, standalone products, services and corporate-social-responsibility programmes are no longer sufficient. Aspirationals want brands to speak more holistically to their values, hopes and desires for themselves and for the world around them.


of Aspirationals agree that "as a consumer, I can make a difference to how a company behaves".


agree that "individuals cannot do much [on their own] to save the environment".


say: "I feel guilty about the negative impact I make on the environment."


encourage other people "to buy from socially and environmentally responsible companies".


believe "free-market capitalism has problems but these can be addressed through regulation and reform".