It’s Time to Rethink How Social Responsibility Plays Into Brand Missions

Lest good intentions be mistaken for ‘purpose washing’

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A recent 300,000 person consumer poll found that people wouldn’t care if 74% of brands they use simply vanished and that 60% of the content produced by companies is poor, irrelevant or failing to deliver. A few weeks ago, billionaire Ray Dalio emphatically stated that capitalism is in crisis and no longer working. Even the World Economic Forum at Davos has been under attack. For Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, attending Davos felt like being at a firefighters’ conference where no one ever mentioned the word “water.”

There is a profound connection between these observations.

The liberal story that has dominated culture for decades and celebrated free-market economics and the story that won over communism and fascism is witnessing a crisis of confidence. The only system we know that should work is creating deep consumer disillusionment and deeply impacting how we market brands moving forward.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who ignited the global student activist movement for climate change, is a cultural indicator of a movement that is already here. Greta is part of Generation Z, one of the most socially-conscious generations ever. It’s a generation that looks to engage with companies that are investing time, energy and resources to not just be socially “well-behaved” but authentically responsible. This mainstream mindset is no longer isolated to just that generation.

Social responsibility advertising has mostly been playing in the same (read: safe) space for a while now. That space is now defunct.

As consumers start to buy on the basis of their beliefs and issues they care for, they are putting their money where their values are, and many brands are failing to connect, leading to emotionally disengaged consumers, those whom I like to refer to as “the DEAD” (disengaged, emotionally, apathetic, distrustful). Certainly not a good emotion to trigger as a brand.

There is an increasing correlation between the (sincere) attention brands give to social causes and the attention and loyalty they get in return. It is no longer enough for a brand to communicate only the functional utility of its products or only enthusiastically activate some rather fleeting entertainment value on social channels. It is becoming evident that brands that are able to authentically associate with and help engage on a societal issue will see increased engagement and purchase intent (e.g., Patagonia saw its revenue grow by 30% the year they ran the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign).

As marketers and the stewards of brands, what is our responsibility here?

Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman argued that a company should have no “social responsibility” to society because its only concern is to increase profits for itself and its shareholders. I dare say it is time we question this assumption and probe our clients about their efforts more deliberately. Consumers today believe that brands have more power to solve social issues than the government and are demanding real solutions that impact society in a positive way.

But solving social issues won’t come from a brand’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. CSR is perceived as a futile attempt to fix the damage after the fact. Neither will it come from communicating your manufactured purpose once a year to check your “We stood for good” box.

Many brands—especially legacy brands—are armed with best intentions yet haven’t been able to crack the code on how to engage with the space and have been accused of “purpose washing.” SNL isn’t the only parody maker to poke fun at that. Juicemaker Oasis, for instance, mocked the state of advertising with “The Togetherness Bottle,” and we collectively nodded, shrugged and laughed along.

While we bravely march toward a digitally transformative future and all things AI, which we absolutely need, we must also address the other seismic shift that is moving the ground beneath our feet—that of radical societal transformation. We need to acknowledge the magnitude of this change and what consumers are starting to expect and demand from brands.

Social responsibility advertising has mostly been playing in the same (read: safe) space for a while now. That space is now defunct. There is an opportunity for the entire business community to coalesce around this global shift and start to reframe—or at least expand—what this new space should encompass and ultimately try to expand what brand success means. We need to get comfortable with the reality that not everything can be about quarterly acquisition-driven metrics. Building meaning today is akin to building patient capital, practiced by our friends at Patagonia, Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry’s.

We are clearly at an inflection point as we think about the future of global capitalism and our role within it. We need to more consciously and judiciously unpack the societal responsibility conversation—as we do the digital transformation conversation—to help clients expand and rethink their brand brief.