The role of consumer brands in redefining social conscience

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, an increased appreciation for mental wellbeing, and our impact on the environment, we’re more aware of our social and ethical impact than ever before.

There have been many responses to these issues. Arguably the most impactful has been the shift in global consumer brands and the use of their worldwide platform to send a message, not only of their brand, but of their view on our society and the challenges it faces.

In a bygone era, brands used to just sell their products, now through social media and the rise of direct to consumer platforms – which we discussed in our column last week – companies are able to forge long lasting and meaningful relationships with their customers.

As Generation Z’s come of age and the purchasing power of millennials rises, the value of positive brand messaging will become priceless. With their huge customer bases and wide marketing reach, blue-chip brands are well placed to address pressing social issues. For many, including the likes of Gillette and Nike, this has meant redefining the message of their brand altogether to achieve a social relevance that these businesses have, perhaps, not been concerned with before. After all, it was only two years ago that Adidas sold over one million pairs of trainers made from ocean plastic and only last week that Nespresso committed $1.2m to improve facilities for recycling its coffee capsules.

Image: Adidas Parley trainers, Photo credit: Adidas

In January this year, Gillette released an advert that caused an outpouring of both praise and criticism from viewers. The campaign put a new spin on the brand’s 30-year-old tagline “The best a man can get”, replacing it with “The best a man can be”. The advert entitled “We Believe: The Best a Man Can Be”, went viral with more than 4 million views on YouTube in 48 hours. To date it has been viewed over 29.5 million times. The advert depicted scenes of ‘toxic masculinity across all areas of life, in and outside of the Board room’ and its well-timed release ahead of ‘Awards Season’ in Hollywood continues the #MeToo conversation.

Similarly, in 2018 Nike released its ‘Just Do It’ campaign for its 30th anniversary. The campaign starred Colin Kaepernick, the NFL star and #BlackLivesMatter activist who was the first to ‘take a knee’ during the singing of the U.S. national anthem as an act of protest against police brutality in America. The timing of the advert, not only within Nike’s own history, but also within the broader social climate marked a powerful statement of intent and purpose, particularly with the accompaniment of a new brand slogan: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

In 2017, Reebok launched a campaign in response to the moment when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell interrupted Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor. As the incident gained more attention, Reebok mobilised to create shirts with the famous tagline, “Nevertheless, She Persisted”. The shirts were made available online with proceeds going to charity.

Not only have these campaigns rallied and inspired a new generation of consumers from a social perspective but they’ve also delivered significant commercial returns. Reebok’s shirts sold out in less than six hours and drove traffic to Reebok’s website, 80% of which came from new visitors. Whilst sparking debate and perhaps alienating some consumers, Nike’s Kaepernick campaign drove “record engagement” with the campaign resonating deeply within the US but also transcending their home market and creating a sense of global momentum – which resulted in a 10% increase in revenue in Nike’s first quarter following the release of the advert.

Image (L): Senator Elizabeth Warren, Photo credit (R): Reebok

Although companies can create competitive advantages based on their social impact, success isn’t guaranteed. Pepsi tried its hand at bonding with activists by placing Kendall Jenner in the midst of a street protest, and subsequently pulled the campaign admitting that it had missed the mark.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that these campaigns have marked a change. In 2018, Channel 4 carried out a survey to determine whether or not brands that engage with topical or important issues through the use of purpose-driven ad campaigns are more likely to build stronger, more sustainable relationships with its consumers. According to their research, 55% of respondents believe that brands should be a ‘force for good’ as opposed to purely selling products and services. Crucially, young people were found to be particularly receptive to purpose-driven campaigns as, ‘60% of 16 to 24-year-olds claim to notice ads more if they deal with important issues, compared to 55% of 35 to 44-year-olds and 37% of those aged 45 and older.’

Challenger brands, like Innocent and People Against Dirty, have historically led the conversation in taking on social concerns and placing ethical business practices at the heart of their messaging. However, with a new wave of socially-conscious consumers coming to the fore, there is now palpable change in the approach of the blue-chip FMCG brands to take on a more ‘challenger’ approach.

Photo credit: B Corporation

This change has been bolstered by the rise of the ‘B Corp Declaration’. B Corps are businesses that have been certified as meeting ‘the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose’. These companies have taken it upon themselves to form a community that will redefine the meaning of success with strong ethics and social purpose in mind – something we’ll be delving further into later in the year.

Momentum in the FMCG sector will continue in this vein since blue-chip brands have proved that integrated ethics gives them a competitive advantage against brands without a global voice. More importantly, through their purchases consumers can take a stand against social injustice and join topical debates. Given the uncertainty the UK is currently facing, we’re waiting to see how any brands will follow up on Ancestry’s controversial Brexit advert, and dare to weigh in on one of the most divisive subjects we’ve faced as a society.

Do you have any examples of consumer brands taking a stand? We’d love to hear your thoughts… |  | @TheMBSGroup