Any brand that publicly supports a progressive cause had better be able to back up its words with actions. Gen-Zers in particular are highly sensitive to hypocritical virtue-signalling
There once was a simpler time when a brand’s success could easily be measured. The better its offering, the more loyal customers it could attract and the more sales revenue it could earn. But consumers now want something from brands that’s far less tangible: authenticity.
A survey of 2,000 adults in the UK, Australia and the US by IT company Stackla in 2019 found that 86% considered a brand’s authenticity to be important when deciding whether to support it or not. A fifth of respondents said that they had unfollowed at least one brand on social media because they felt that the content it was producing was too corporate or insincere.
Authenticity matters even more to younger people. According to a poll conducted last year for blog software provider WP Engine, 72% of under-25s said that they would be more likely to buy from a brand that contributes to good causes. What’s more, consumers can easily see through firms that treat charitable donations as a proxy for truly socially conscious behaviour.
There are more ways than ever to expose companies whose actions don’t match their rhetoric. In May 2020, for instance, the Black Lives Matter movement thrust brands that weren’t anti-racist into the spotlight. After the murder of George Floyd, companies scrambled to publish social media content expressing support for the campaign to end police brutality against Black people (see panel, opposite page). But former employees and customers highlighted the hypocrisy of several of these firms, blowing the whistle on the racial discrimination occurring behind the scenes.
And in June, designated as Pride Month in the US, many companies that proclaimed their support for LGBTQ+ rights were accused of cynical bandwagon-jumping or ‘pinkwashing’, given their poor inclusivity records. A 2018 survey by PR giant Edelman found that “64% of consumers would reward firms which they see as engaged in some kind of activism”. It’s therefore unsurprising that businesses would vocally back a worthy cause if they believe that it would generate more custom. The challenge they need to address is how to stand for something in a way that the latest generation of discerning consumers deems commendable.
It’s not rocket science, according to Shayne Tilley, marketing director at creative platform 99designs. “Ultimately, a company cannot say one thing and do another. This isn’t a ‘fake it till you make it’ scenario – the world is getting smarter than that,” he says. “A brand’s personality is a conduit of its values, which have to be grounded in reality if that brand is to stand a chance of being authentic. Empty gestures will – and should – be called out.”
Building over time
Ryan Foland is a brand consultant and co-author of Ditch the Act: reveal the surprising power of the real you for greater success. He notes that “authenticity, like trust, is built over time. This happens when the brand’s mission, vision, values and goals are personified in the daily interactions of its employees, with each other and with suppliers, vendors and customers.”
Foland advises companies to identify and agree what values they stand for and then ensure that everyone in the organisation lives up to these consistently. “Brands can’t avoid how others interpret their words, but they can back up their words with actions,” he says.
When social causes that match the company’s values are clearly defined and communicated – and then, crucially, supported at all levels of the organisation – what the firm says publicly about these causes should be seen as consistent with its behaviour, according to Foland. He adds that brands would be well advised to say nothing about a cause until they’re able to show that their actions support it.
A key issue that’s important to consumers of all ages is sustainability. A company’s environmental impact on the world is relatively easy to gauge. If a fast-fashion retailer were to urge its customers to stop using plastic straws, for instance, that would demonstrably be the height of hypocrisy.
US outdoor clothing brand Patagonia tops the authenticity chart for experts and consumers alike. It calls itself an activist company, having committed to minimising its environmental footprint and donating 1% of its sales income to green causes since 1985 – long before such behaviour was popular with consumers or particularly profitable.
In 2016, Patagonia contributed all of its Black Friday revenue – about $10m (£7.2m) - to environmental organisations, offsetting some of the waste associated with the busiest shopping day of the year in the US. Two years later, it made headlines again for donating the $10m it had received from the Trump administration’s tax cuts to “groups committed to protecting air, land and water, and to finding solutions to the climate crisis”.
For Becky Willan, co-founder and CEO of Given, an agency that works with purpose-driven businesses, Patagonia is a touchstone. She considers the ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ advert that it ran in the New York Times on Black Friday in 2011, which urged readers to shun mass consumerism, “a masterclass in authentic brand-building”.
Taking a bold stance
Willan cites another US trailblazer, Ben & Jerry’s, for its long history of championing equality. While other firms were being castigated for paying lip service to Black Lives Matter, the Unilever-owned ice-cream brand posted a statement on its website detailing the activities it was undertaking in support of its commitment to upholding progressive values.
Some of Ben & Jerry’s recent political activities around the world have inevitably been divisive, but it has stood firm against the critics. For instance, it took to Twitter to challenge the UK home secretary’s opposition to migrants crossing the English Channel to seek asylum last year, declaring that “people cannot be illegal”.
Willan adds that the brand (whose founders are both Jewish) has also since taken a bold stance against the Israeli government by withdrawing its products from sale in Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory.
She believes that any brand seeking credibility “must have a purpose beyond making money. It needs to have a clear idea about the role it plays in people’s lives and act in a way that’s consistent with that idea. It has to be true to the principles it stands for.”
There’s never been a better time for brands to pursue authenticity, according to Willan, although she stresses that they must not treat it as a mere marketing tactic.
“This is about prioritising actions over words, not about adopting a mantra that makes everyone feel good while they carry on with business as usual. It’s about living up to a purpose comprehensively in every part of the business,” she says, describing anything less as “purpose-washing”.
Willan believes that “every business on the planet should be thinking about how they are contributing to a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive world. The challenge is that, for firms in certain sectors – including defence, tobacco and gambling – it’s virtually impossible for their activities to create genuinely positive outcomes for society.”
Michael Houlihan, the co-founder and former CEO of California’s Barefoot Wines, agrees. “The bigger issue concerns the disclosure of any undesirable facts about your approach to sourcing, production, labour and human rights. Authenticity demands a clean slate, so banks, for instance, tend to play down the environmental effects of their investments in the fossil-fuel industry,” he says.
B Corporation status is something that truly responsible companies value as a badge of honour. To attain it, a firm must undergo a rigorous assessment process that measures its performance in five categories: governance, workers, customers, community and the environment.
More than a marketing strategy
While Willan encourages brands to seek such accreditation, she urges CEOs to first “think holistically about the role they play in the world before they dream up a purpose-driven marketing strategy”.
She believes that “campaign activity needs to be backed by real and stretching business commitments”. Investment must be focused on delivering positive change, rather than on telling everyone about it, while “members of any marginalised group that a firm is supporting need to be involved in its campaigns. And campaign activities must be backed by long-term programmes focused on changing the whole system.”
Willan acknowledges that doing all those things is harder and more complex than simply paying for a slick advert, but they will certainly pay off in the longer term.
Erik Oberholtzer, the co-founder and executive chairman of the LA-based Tender Greens restaurant group, is also an adviser to socially and environmentally conscious food brands via his creative agency, Cohere. Another fan of Patagonia’s approach, he believes that the recipe for authenticity is simple: it’s that a brand’s stated values align with its behaviour – and that those values are grounded in “an unwavering commitment and core belief system that comes from within”.
Oberholtzer encourages consumers to consider the distance between what a brand says and what its actions indicate – for instance, BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ rebranding as a supplier of green energy versus its conduct after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
He agrees with Ryan Foland that brands should refrain from commenting about causes to which they have no established connection.
“I find it inauthentic when brands paste a rainbow flag on their website during Pride Month, or post a Black Lives Matter stamp on their social media accounts after an uprising, if they have little history of activism in those areas before that ‘marketing moment’,” Oberholtzer says.
There is no standard metric by which to gauge authenticity and there isn’t (yet) an algorithm that can determine your firm’s values and ensure that everyone in the organisation lives by them. That’s why it’s important to engage with only those causes that align with your beliefs, what your company is selling and how it behaves. All firms should strive to be socially responsible, but that work starts from within. A marketing campaign should be the last step in conveying your convictions.