Ethical ecommerce: does brand purpose still sell?

‘Brand purpose’ is everywhere at the moment. Fashion retailer H&M is leaning into cotton recyclability and resource preservation, aiming to become ‘truly circular’ by 2030. Many of the UK’s major supermarkets have spent the last year working to reduce plastic production and waste, with Iceland having already returned over £30k to customers via its bottle-recycling scheme. And Gillette’s recent The Best Men Can Be campaign – which reappropriated the toiletry vendor’s age-old message into a #MeToo-era condemnation of toxic masculinity – has prompted mixed reactions online.

But even as brands continue to buy into the purpose-driven marketing machine, can we be sure that customers are doing the same? From the Lush ‘#SpyCops’ misstep to Divine’s reconsideration of its Fairtrade-centric marketing, there are signs that enthusiasm for brand causes isn’t as high as some claim. In fact, findings from 4A’s and research group SSRS suggest that most consumers (58%) actively dislike it when brands get political.

In an era of waning consumer confidence, we explore what purpose-driven marketing still has to offer.

Consumers are getting more canny

Today’s consumers are more cynical than ever before: 3 in 4 people reportedly fear the use of fake news ‘as a weapon’. Consumer confidence is at a five-year low. And research from Trinity Mirror/Ipsos show that 69% of British consumers distrust advertising and 42% distrust brands themselves. After all, whatever ethical cause is being promoted, consumers are still fundamentally aware that brands are seeking to drive sales.

What does this mean for purpose-driven marketing? The Trinity Mirror study elaborates:

“As brands move from propositions to ‘purpose’, they leave themselves open to scorn from ‘cynical Britain’. With a cynical starting point, and with the ability to easily check on brand behaviour, a brand’s purpose is viewed as inauthentic until people have seen it put into action with their own eyes. This perceived lack of authenticity is having a profound impact on trust, because 58% of adults don’t trust a brand until they have seen ‘real world proof’ that they have kept their promises.”

Unfortunately, far from allaying consumer suspicions, the media is full of brands reneging on such purpose-driven oaths. Last year, Iceland – whose Christmas advert was sensationally banned from broadcast for its overtly political message – pledged to remove all palm oil from its own-brand products by the end of 2018. However, the supermarket later admitted to the BBC that it only removed the own-brand label from 17 of the products, not the actual ingredient. This is just one example of many well-publicised failings in brand purpose worldwide.

Despite this, people are still looking for purpose

So consumers don’t trust brand promises anymore – at least, not until they see evidence that they’ll be kept. Despite this, statistics indicate that consumers remain open to the idea of brands supporting a cause – and, once initiative is proven, still prefer businesses with a strong, defined purpose. According to Kantar’s Purpose 2020 report, over half of consumers still prefer brands that “have a point of view and stand for something”. Meanwhile, 73% of consumers still think a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions.

This bias for purpose-driven businesses is particularly strong among certain demographics. According to research from Edelman, most millennials (60%) are belief-driven in their purchasing habits; Gen Z and Gen X fall at 53% and 51% respectively. Earners in the top quartile over-index as belief-driven – suggesting that, the higher their spending power, the more belief-driven a customer’s purchases. Finally, Sprout Social has found that liberal consumers particularly favour brands with purpose; 4 in 5 (78%) left-leaning consumers want brands to be more vocal about purpose, in contrast to half of consumers with more conservative politics.

So, while most brands might benefit from well-judged, purpose-driven marketing, those with young, liberal and/or well-off consumer bases may have the most to gain.

Searching for purpose and doing it right

So, following on from Trinity Mirror’s advice, how can brands do purpose right? A pivotal step is choosing the right cause in the first place.

In May 2018, UK soap retailer Lush released their #SpyCops marketing drive. Featured in shop windows across the country, the overtly political campaign criticised police use of undercover agents some decades earlier. Unfortunately, the campaign was poorly received, characterised by Marketing Week’s Mark Ritson as “a shameful attempt to incite public distrust in our national police force.”

However, the problems with the #SpyCops campaign went beyond an irresponsible message. As a business, Lush has a positive history of opposing animal testing and reducing product packaging. However, this new direction seemed so far removed from their remit of delightful bath bombs and shower gel that consumers not only found it difficult to stomach, but perceived the effort as manipulatory.

The #SpyCops incident proves that purpose isn’t something can be tacked onto an already-existent brand identity. The most organic purposes are those that are built into the business model – for example, Divine’s from-the-start support of Fairtrade cocoa farmers. This doesn’t mean that brands can’t dip into purpose retroactively; it just means that they have to be more careful.

To successfully appeal to consumers, your cause or position must be:

  1. Something that feels organic to your brand proposition. Why does your brand have to support this particular initiative? If marketers can answer this question honestly and easily, then customers will as well.
  2. Something that your brand can represent better than your competitors. Purpose-driven marketing is a source of differentiation. If your competitors can jump on the bandwagon and do the same thing better than you, then you’ll soon be looking for a new message.
  3. A message that is reflected not only in your outbound marketing, but in your company ideals, values, practices and structure. Don’t dice with customer trust: your brand’s commitment to its principles must be bulletproof.

Once an appropriate angle is confirmed, feel free to shout about it. Customers don’t mind brands being loud about purpose; research from Sprout Social shows that 61% of respondents think businesses should post about their various stances on social media. This advice applies up until the very point of purchase. According to Edelman, 60% of consumers think brands should make it easier to see their values and ethical positioning just before they buy – so try bringing some purpose to your product descriptions, and see how your consumers respond.

Purpose-driven marketing still has something to offer the modern ecommerce brand, particularly those catering to a young and liberal demographic. The key is to calibrate your angle correctly, to commit genuinely, and to carry that initiative to its logical conclusion both within and without the business. Only then can brands rightly earn customer trust, and reap the rewards of ethical ecommerce.

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