John Lewis & Partners and Ikea (pictured above) are two of the latest brands to grab headlines with their purpose-led schemes. Both are offering a clear incentive to consumers to get money back or vouchers when they bring in old furniture or clothes to then spend in stores.
It’s an easy win for the retailers and they’ll be hoping the initiatives get people into stores and back into the swing of shopping "irl" as they cash in their pre-loved stuff.
But this is more than money-making during Covid times. There’s been a shift in the purpose debate, and businesses are now looking at how to go beyond what might be considered "pretend purpose" and drive real action.
We believe we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of brand – a “conscious brand” – that’s capable of being more responsive to desires, moods and culture, and more responsible by helping people, partners and the planet grow.
What defines a conscious brand?
To be "conscious" means to be aware of and respond to your surroundings. But there’s a lot that brands ignore: the debates surrounding race, privilege, inequality, fake news, automation and climate change are often uncomfortable arenas for brands.
By choosing to ignore these kinds of issues – personal and planetary – brands risk becoming insensitive and irrelevant.
However, many brands like John Lewis, Ikea and Patagonia are working extra hard to do better. Patagonia is vocal on its political stance: "When the polls open, we close."
Others, like Oatly, help normalise carbon-positive behaviours through product, packaging and personality. And some brands, like BBC Bitesize, offer essential education services during national crisis.
Being a conscious brand is not just about sustainability, as these diverse examples show. So, where do you start?
To help with the brand self-analysis and move forward in an actionable way, we’ve devised a new framework called the "six signs of a conscious brand". This highlights significant shifts that conscious brands make – and shows how those shifts link back to drive stronger brand and business performance.
Most brands already endorse a need for personalisation and communicating in a “human” way.
Ironically, talk of personalisation and humanity has created predictability and blandness. Brands that show an understanding of cultural context and users’ wide range of emotions can win a greater share of voice and mind.
For example, Spotify curates mixes, podcasts and new releases in a way that’s designed to deliver “the right music for every moment”. This behaviour also influences Spotify’s voice in communications – highlighting users’ weird and wonderful playlists and listening habits in a locally relevant way.
As new technologies and channels have exploded, brands have attempted to become “multimedia”. But, too often, they “copy and paste” the same brand assets, with people quickly learning to screen out (and ultimately avoid) brands that bore and interrupt them.
By contrast, TikTok moves the game on by being multisensory. Unlike its social competitors, it is loud, colourful, constantly moving and encourages users to respond on an emotional level rather than bombarding you with messaging and follower requests.
And, despite what critics think, TikTok doesn’t just use this multisensory approach for spurious ends. During lockdown, it successfully drove responsible behaviours through the #iwillsurvivechallenge (washing hands to the Gloria Gaynor anthem), and the #stayathomechallenge, where NHS workers and TikTok Creators shared exercise routines or cooking tips to pass the time – with the latter notching up more than 2.6 billion views.
To be both frictionless and engaging is a balancing act. Brands need to help users execute things like purchases efficiently and with minimal fuss; but they also need to make an impression and give people more reasons to try, buy and recommend.
Resolving this tension is not easy if all you have is a transactional relationship – where the primary motivations (speed and convenience) often conflict directly with a brand’s desire to upsell and cross-sell.
But brands can overcome this tension if they explore more deeply the role they play in users’ lives.
Apple Watch is all about building healthier daily habits – rather than just alerting you to new messages or emails.
This elegant piece of user interface design encourages positive daily behaviours: closing the three rings (Move, Exercise and Stand) becomes a ritual that is more satisfying and compelling than tracking endless steps and calories. Apple also creates a more engaged, loyal base, reducing its costs of marketing, acquisition and retention.
Many businesses want to be seen as an “ethical employer”, but often, this feels more like a compliance exercise than one proactively addressing what’s wrong with the world – internally and externally.
For example, despite its admirable work to raise awareness of issues surrounding race and inequality, Nike has been called out for running an executive board with below-average ethnic and gender diversity.
By contrast, Lego (now ranked as the world’s most reputable company by the RepTrak 100 survey) is a vocal advocate for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) subjects and partners with tech events specialist Re:Code to get children inventing, creating and coding robotic models that solve real issues, mostly around sustainability.
A criticism levelled at brands is they encourage overconsumption, unhealthy lifestyles and ecological harm. Some try to combat this perception by promoting restraint: Please drink, gamble and fly responsibly. But this simply shifts responsibility to end users.
As the New Citizenship Project notes, when people think of themselves as just consumers, they’re less likely to tackle society’s biggest problems.
So what if brands thought beyond consumption and started treating people like a collective of citizens? This is where John Lewis and Ikea come in with their citizen-empowering circular schemes.
Another example, the Peanut app, aims to solve a problem many new mothers face: a feeling of isolation. The free app, endorsed by the NHS, allows women to connect with others across fertility and motherhood, creating groups reflecting their own interests, including breastfeeding, LGBT+ and Muslim mum groups.
It’s not targeting a “need state”, instead the platform is helping citizens organise themselves and overcome the practical and emotional difficulties.
Brands have long taken a narrow, product-based view to effectively remain amoral, avoiding taking a political or social stance with the associated risks of offending customers.
But as brand boycotting becomes more prevalent, brands must ask themselves if they can afford not to speak up for what they believe is right or wrong.
After US unemployment numbers rose to more than 30 million, Headspace decided to offer a one-year free subscription to unemployed Americans and Brits, stating: “While meditation and mindfulness can’t change our circumstances in life, it can help us change our perspective on those circumstances.”
And when Microsoft received pressure to reduce its emissions, it promised to be carbon negative by 2030 and remove its historical carbon emissions by 2050, stating: “Science tells us that it’s a goal of fundamental importance to every person alive today and for every generation to follow.”
We believe it’s crucial to keep pushing for higher standards – commercially, culturally and creatively – and that these “six signs” can challenge all of us and our clients to do just that.
In defining these new standards, we hope to provoke debate, enquiry and a little self-analysis. And go beyond the greenwash or woke labels.
A conscious brand is a brand set for the next decade and more, shifting its thinking beyond the token gestures, one-offs or gentle words to a renewed vision of its place in the community and in society.
David Stevens is senior strategy director at Wolff Olins