WE Communications' annual Brands in Motion study has found that while brands are expected to operate with purpose, consumers are simultaneously concerned about purpose-washing or the attempt of brands to latch onto social causes in order to sell more products.
The study, which surveyed over 4,000 consumers in APAC (Australia, Singapore, India, and China) and another 4,000 in US and EMEA, showed that just over half of total respondents say that brands that take stances on societal issues are just trying to sell more products or services. This 'sceptimism' is especially widespread in Australia and India (57 per cent respectively).
The report said:
"In some ways, the movement to lead with purpose is a victim of its own success. With more players labelling their work as purposeful, the competition is much stronger, as some brands are doing extremely well and setting a high bar. However, many other companies are hopping unthinkingly on the purpose bandwagon, and we are seeing a proliferation of ill-considered campaigns that leave much of the audience feeling jaded and cynical."
However, purpose remains a must and a given as two out of three respondents say they are more likely to purchase or recommend products or services from brands that address societal issues that matter to them. This factor is especially prevalent in China (73 per cent) and lower in Singapore (64 per cent). This year, the expectation for brands to create stability in uncertain times rose by 30 per cent.
One example where a brand managed to bridge the disconnect between purpose and purpose-washing is Airbnb's call to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees by offering homes for free or at a discount.
One of the key points made in this year's study is that brands cannot please everyone. For instance, two-thirds of respondents think brands should weigh in on societal issues while one-third think it's not the role of brands to comment or act on these issues. The report said this is why it's important for brands to partner with key stakeholders—such as employees, existing customers, and community members—instead of starting with the expectation of dominance. Talking to those who want to engage is a good first step.
Along this purpose journey, CEOs are expected to be torchbearers of the societal causes their companies claim to support. And CEOs should prioritise communication with employees over customers, shareholders, and the media, according to respondents. A whopping 74 per cent said that business leaders should communicate with their employees about their personal position on issues at least every six months.
On the consumer front, respondents—especially those in India—expect brands to publicly communicate on topics of importance, and this must be supported by sustained action. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say that it's better for brands to make multi-year investments in one issue rather than invest in a new cause each year.
On top of that, there seems to be increased preference of brands to focus on local issues and communities as opposed to global issues. And interestingly, respondents showed a strong preference for concrete purpose-based initiatives that they can see, feel and touch.
When asked the most impactful actions for brands to engage on in the next three to six months, there was a clear preference for concrete actions, such as 'investing in technology' or 'partnering with educational institutions'. The actions they were least impressed with include 'monetary donations', 'facilitate dialogue across divided groups', and 'represent underserved groups in advertising'.
The report said: "Rapid-fire social media responses, tweeted in the moment of hot-button headlines, are exactly what get so many brands into trouble. Being impulsive isn't brave. Chasing the latest turbocharged news meme isn't brave. Bravery requires determining what you stand for and making deep and sustained investments that back up those values."