The rise of brands with purpose: using content to communicate your values

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With research showing that almost two-thirds of customers wants brands to take a stand, big names including Gillette and Nike are using content to assume positions on controversial issues

Gillette is the latest brand to ride the wave of parading a social conscience, as evidence builds that consumers increasingly expect the enterprises they spend money with to stand for more than simply making money.

The razor brand’s parent company Procter & Gamble (P&G) stirred up a huge reaction with its new campaign, attracting both plaudits and anger on social and mainstream media plus millions of YouTube views. The ad turns the 30-year-old tagline ’the best a man can get’ into a question, featuring news commentary on the #MeToo movement, and men intervening to stop bullying or preventing other men from harassing women in the street.

It comes as a 2018 survey by Edelman reveals that 64 per cent of consumers are now “belief-driven buyers” – that is to say they will choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand because of its stance on a particular social issue. With an increasing number of companies commenting publicly on sometimes-controversial subjects outside their core business, the pressure is on to get it right.

According to Edelman’s survey, content is the most successful way to capture your audience’s attention. Eighty-four per cent of people who had taken notice of a brand’s message did so because they were engaged by it, rather than interrupted by it; they were interested enough to pay attention, rather than simply unable to avoid it. So how can companies create content with a clearly defined message about their values, to build trust and an emotional connection with their audience? And how can they avoid being seen to exploit a subject for the sake of publicity?

Challenging stereotypes?

The Gillette furore shows the pressure for companies to get it right when they comment publicly on hot-button social issues. P&G said on its website that it is running the campaign because it is “time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture”, promising to “actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette”.

The company also said it would donate $1m a year for three years to non-profit organisations whose work is “designed to inspire, educate and help men of all ages achieve their personal ‘best’ and become role models for the next generation”.

A Morning Consult survey of 2,201 consumers found that the proportion who felt the Gillette brand shared their values rose from 42 per cent to 71 per cent after seeing the ad. However, critics of the campaign have panned it for making sweeping generalisations about men’s behaviour and questioned whether the brand, promoted for decades via ads showing women swooning at the sight of clean-shaven alpha males, has the credentials to condemn ‘toxic masculinity’.

“If Gillette had been able to say what it was doing to lead by example and how it was looking at this issue across its business, from gender pay gap to paternity leave, it might feel more credible,” Becky Willan, managing director of brand-purpose agency Given, told Forbes.

Believe in something

One of the most high-profile recent examples of a brand supporting a cause is Nike’s advertising campaign with American football player Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the US national anthem as a protest against social injustice and police brutality against African-Americans. (Kaepernick is in the middle of the picture at the top of the page kneeling during the pre-game anthem.) With the tagline ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’, Nike waded into an already highly divisive issue. Kaepernick and the players who followed his example are accused of disrespecting the flag by opponents including President Trump. Pictures of people burning Nike products appeared on social media when the campaign was announced.

Nike CEO Mark Parker said the campaign’s goal was to “inspire our consumers to connect and engage”, particularly younger people, and the sports brand has got it right for its audience – figures from YouGov show 78 per cent of Nike customers in the US like brands to take a stand, higher than the national average of 68 per cent. Over the weekend following the campaign’s launch, despite #BoycottNike trending on Twitter, Nike’s online sales rose 31 per cent, according to Edison Trends, while footfall at its stores rose 17 per cent over the next week, Foursquare figures showed.

Even with Nike’s enormous global appeal and marketing budget, there is a very fine line between communicating your values and getting out of your depth. According to the same YouGov survey, 59 per cent of consumers in both the UK and US say brands should not get directly involved in political matters, despite a majority in both countries (57 per cent in the UK, 58 per cent in the US) saying it is “somewhat or very important” to them that companies have a transparent view on the big issues in society, such as human rights and education.

Keep it real

To stay on the right side of this line, taking a public stand on issues you have expertise in is often a good place to start – thoughtful content that relates directly to your core business is of interest to your audience, and has authenticity.

Being transparent about your position on an issue and the actions you plan to take is as much as many consumers want, rather than companies expressing judgement against those who don’t share their view.

Companies must also have a totally clear idea of why they are taking a stand and be sure their business operations meet the standard they are espousing, because getting it wrong – producing content that comes across as opportunistic, disingenuous or patronising – results in very public ridicule and disapproval. In 2017, Pepsi pulled an advert featuring reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner taking part in a peace protest after a photo shoot, and handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer, after criticism it traded off the Black Lives Matter campaign, and belittled the seriousness of the issue.

The power of brands

The push for more transparency started with younger consumers for whom status is conferred by a brand’s provenance and ethical credentials as much as its price tag; comfortable with social media, they’re accustomed to being able to have a dialogue with the companies they buy from. However, having a strong sense of purpose now has broad appeal: Edelman’s survey shows belief-driven buyers are today in the majority in all age groups (highest at 69 per cent of 18-34-year olds, but still 56 per cent of people aged 55 and over). Some 53 per cent of respondents also believe brands can do more to solve social ills than governments.

Having a strong sense of purpose and using high-quality content to talk about it enables companies to build lasting ties with their customers. It allows them to start a conversation with their audience about issues that really interest them. If the subject is controversial, companies should be ready for noisy criticism. They must make sure their own credentials on the subject pass muster, whether that means their record on workplace equality or their sustainability policies. Businesses have traditionally shied away from controversy, but, increasingly, their customers expect them to take a stand.

How to communicate your values in a credible way

Consumers increasingly want the companies they buy from to make their position known on controversial or topical issues. Beware appearing shallow or hypocritical.

  1. Why am I reading this here? Creating content that sets out your company’s stance on the hot-button topic in your industry makes sense, whether that’s the ethical treatment of animals used in food production or the size of the gender pay gap in banking. You have authority and a ready-made audience. But…
  2. Get your own house in order. As the Gillette controversy shows, your company’s credentials on the subject you tackle will be closely scrutinised. If you’re not already above reproach on the subject, you need to make clear what changes you are making.
  3. Know your audience. Is there a push from your customers to know more about your supply chain or environmental practices? Is your industry under pressure from regulators on a certain subject? Content that addresses the concerns of customers and investors increases transparency and trust.
  4. Get a second opinion. The New York Times reports that Nike was close to dropping Colin Kaepernick’s sponsorship, but was persuaded not to because of the negative publicity the decision would attract, and eventually decided to back his stance on ‘taking the knee’ because of support for the issue among its customers. A sanity check by a trusted adviser is essential before publishing any content relating to a controversial subject.
  5. Expect criticism. Corporate communication has traditionally steered clear of anything approaching controversy. As a result, taking the decision to be vocal about one of the issues of the day will attract comment, both positive and negative, on social and mainstream media. As long as you have sound reasons for your position, and have followed steps 2, 3 and 4 above, you will be in a good place to defend your content.