The Leadership Opportunity for Brands in 2020 (and beyond)

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Tyler Tullis
Senior Director of Marketing

Jul 23, 2020

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, economic fears, election anxiety and other 2020 turmoil, something seismic is happening: We’re in the middle of a large-scale shift toward brand action driven by new consumer expectations and the vacuum of consistent leadership from increasingly distrusted institutions.

Last month Christine wrote a blog detailing why the recent statement from Ben & Jerry’s in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was so effective and what it means for other brands.

In the time since, we’ve seen organizations across the globe making statements condemning systemic racism, providing support amid the COVID-19 pandemic and being more socially minded in general. While few have acted, some have acted quickly, but in ways that have been disingenuous. Let’s look at this more closely.

Businesses and NGOs are currently trusted 11% more than government and 9% more than media among informed audiences surveyed globally. Moreover, 60% of Americans say they want to buy products from brands who take a stand on issues like racial discrimination, the environment and equality. Over 50% indicate they research to see how a brand reacts to social issues.

Before you jump to adopt a stance on one of these issues, beware — journalist Helen Lewis recently coined what she calls the “iron law of woke capitalism: brands gravitating toward low-cost, high noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform to ensure survival.” In other words, she argues most brands facing any sort of crisis, especially if tied to social justice issues, will generate the minimum amount of effort needed to satiate critics and quell a customer uprising.

There are examples of this to be sure — the Washington soon-to-be-former Redskins paints a picture of corporate America’s “altruism” as a survival instinct only. Dan Snyder’s hand wasn’t forced by an inability to look at himself in the mirror, but by sponsors finally threatening to bail.

What finally tipped his sponsors over the edge? The groundswell of public opinion shifting market realities toward an expectation that brands take up a leadership role. Take a look at a handful of indicators we’ve got our eye on:

95% of respondents argued brands should do “something” to assist with COVID-19 relief, be it financial support, advocacy or creating relevant content to support customers and communities. Another 67% agreed brands have a role to play in speaking out against racial injustice, an all-time high.

Even before the events of 2020, the percentage of consumers making decisions based on a brand’s stance on societal issues has been increasing, growing from 51% in 2017 to 64% in 2018-19. We expect a massive uptick after the events of this year.

Though consumers want to see brands taking action, they’re suspect of organizations that wield social issues for profit: a survey from DNA Seattle found 59% were likely to be more loyal to brands that supported causes they cared about, but a higher percentage (61%) said they thought too many brands were using societal issues as a marketing ploy.

There’s also in tidal wave building behind these numbers — a BBMG Globescan survey recently revealed Gen Z, already the most engaged generation on social issues, doesn’t trust business to act in the best interest of society by a 5 – 1 margin. Less than a fourth of them couldn’t name a single brand they considered to be “purposeful.”

Inspiringly, we already see brands meaningfully reexamining their budget allocations and operations to support communities, causes and business partners who align with their values. Brands like Nike, Amazon and Sephora are taking the 15% Pledge, which asks companies to commit that 15 percent of their merchandise will come from Black-owned brands.

The lesson in all this?

Across generations, consumers’ bullshit meters are highly attuned and they will spot the difference between meaningful brand solidarity with action to back it up vs. vapid lip-service.

They’re paying attention to who is making actual investment into disparities and systemic issues they can help address. Dan Snyder will get away with his decades-late renaming of a football team based on a racial slur because of the demand for his product, but for brands where there is competition and market fluidity, consumers won’t have patience for those who fail to address injustice or refuse to back up expressions of social justice without action.

The market is demanding more of brands to be leaders in their communities and use their considerable power to make the world a better place.

The counsel we give to clients is what our CEO, Michelle, has always said to them in crisis situations — do the right thing first, then talk about it.

You can read more about our take on the leadership opportunity for brands in these recent blogs about:

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