What do these four things have in common?

  • Respiration
  • Wasps
  • A risk assessment
  • Life

Well according to google they are all things that people want to know the purpose of.

And just like those things, it is often thought that a purpose is how to best drive your brand forward and develop public appeal. A thought that is supported by multiple surveys, with 1 in 2 consumers being defined as belief-driven buyers – meaning they choose, switch or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.

So by that logic, consumers will love those brands that try and help the world be a better place, right?


Social Desirability bias and virtue signalling

Although people will say they are belief-driven buyers, that may be in part because they think they should be. When you’re running late or have forgotten to buy a gift, convenience and product may eventually trump principles when it comes to making a final decision; otherwise Uber and Amazon wouldn’t show quite the same growth they have.

But just because people may not do what they say they would,  that doesn’t mean that a brand shouldn’t tie itself to a social cause.  People still do care, but brands should only do this when it’s appropriate or it could be viewed as virtue signalling.

Virtue signalling is when someone (or a brand) express opinions or sentiment to demonstrate their good character or for their own personal gain. A social justice campaign could easily come across as profit-making if it’s done wrong.  Ask Kendall Jenner.

To say Pepsi’s campaign was tone-deaf is an understatement.  Launching at the same time as the BLM movement, they showed a joyful protest compared to those that were happening at the time.  But the most ingenious aspect was the notion that Pepsi could solve racial injustice as a drinks brand.

You can’t just support a cause that isn’t grounded in reality. It has to be something that your business credibly & visibly supports and that people associate your brand with.

Get your house in order first

Before you even consider to put a stand on a social issue, you need to make sure you are not breaking the rules you are seeming to support.  With company information and practice becoming more accessible information, a conscious consumer is aware of a company’s back end processes. So it is key to practice what you preach otherwise it will come of as profiteering.

A prime example is the State Street Global Advisors unveiling the Fearless Girl to send a message about gender diversity and equal recruitment opportunities ahead of International Women’s Day.  It received praise and lots of coverage that quickly turned to backlash when SSGA’s own leadership was revealed to be 18% female.  Not only that but in the same year had rejected shareholder proposals to tackle gender inequality 12 times.

Consumers want brands to practice what they preach. If their cause doesn’t seem authentic, it comes across solely as a profit-making ploy.

So how should brands ‘take a stand’?

Hitting the social cause ‘sweet spot’ can be difficult but it’s a balance between authenticity and transparency

To find something authentic it can hit in one of three ways:


Support a social cause which goes to the very heart of why you, as a brand, exist.

Patagonia is a great example of a brand that does this well.  Not only does their support for environmental issues make intuitive sense for a company selling outdoor goods, but it is present at all touchpoints, not just in a marketing campaign.

The promotion in their campaigns is in line with what consumers expect as Patagonia’s products are designed with sustainability in mind and 1% of sales go towards preservation projects which form a key part of their messaging.


Authentically connect your brand’s stand to a relevant moment in culture.

At its heart, Nike’s ‘just do it’ campaign is a brand message of going against the grain for what you believe in.  So when they collaborated with Colin Kaepernick it made sense.  The act of protest in a sports environment fell in-line with Nike’s messaging which created authenticity compared to the previous example of Pepsi which touched on a similar issue.   Nike tying themselves to a controversial moment furthered the message as they were themselves taking a risk but supporting Kaepernick (one that actually paid off due to their boost in sales).


Confront a controversial issue that has a direct impact on your stakeholders and brand.

Brexit and the idea of what it means to be ‘British’ has been a major topic of debate within the public.  As a ‘beautifully British’ brand Jigsaw took a stand with their ‘<3 Immigration’ campaign.  The message was clear and relevant to them as a company giving a sense of transparency to why they support the social cause.  Therefore it felt less like a money-making ploy but more of a statement of fact.

Takehome Points

  1. You can’t just support a cause that isn’t grounded in the reality of your brand. It has to be something that your business can credibly get behind and that people want to associate your brand with.
  2. Consumers want brands to practice what they preach. If your support doesn’t seem authentic, it comes across solely as a profit-making ploy.
  3. Understand the reasons why you as a brand are supporting the particular cause (Purpose / Culture / Activism).

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