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Brand Purpose, ESG & CSR. The salvation of the planet or tomorrow’s tyrannies?
Blog / Brand

Brand Purpose, ESG & CSR. The salvation of the planet or tomorrow’s tyrannies?

Is your company a force for good? How should it be a force for good? Who can help, and what have others learned?
These questions above wese some being asked at Agency Hackers’ excellent ‘Good Agencies’ Summit.

I had been set up by organiser Ian Harris (in the nicest possible way) to act as a foil to the general consensus that all progressive businesses should have a programme to support the key social issues of our day. Things like ‘fighting climate change’ or for ‘social justice’.  I was asked to share the research our agency did on how the consumer reacts to ‘Brand Purpose’ earlier this year. It was picked up by the press and even novelist Lionel Shriver writing in The Spectator.  This was because the findings went somewhat against the conventional narrative that today’s consumers are demanding brands have ‘Purpose’.

We learnt a lot doing that research – not the least that it asked questions that marketers really  didn’t want us to ask and that consumers welcomed. So I was not expecting an entirely warm reaction from a room of marketers. However I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people seeking me out during the day to say how strongly they agreed with my viewpoint. Their comments were always along the lines: “Thank God for some common sense on this subject. I feel the same way but daren’t say so.” (You may wonder why that might be?)

I had the opportunity to engage with a lot of the content of both the online preamble and the live event (3 days of online seminars involving many of the speakers) and have reflected on what I observed. But first, what about our research?  (We surveyed over 2,000 UK consumers representative of the UK’s population in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation).

It’s worth bearing in mind when reviewing the numbers below that prosocial bias – the desire to give ‘good citizen’ answers will have exaggerated the support for progressive causes among our sample. This is a normal effect widely ignored by researchers looking for support for their arguments.

We already know that:
  • The number of consumers who are ‘annoyed’ by TV ads has doubled from 25% to 50% in the last 20 years (From BBH Lab research ‘Charts that don’t change’ tracking human behaviour, it is this attitudes to ads that has changed the most.)
And our research showed that:
  • Only 22% of consumers think they know what is meant by ‘Brand Purpose’.
  • 68% of consumers are uneasy or unsure about brands pushing progressive causes.
  • 8% said they would actively avoid brands that support progressive causes (and corroborating research indicates that those sympathetic to the causes are not more likely to buy the brand, but those who are antithetic will boycott the brand). 
  • When asked: “When it comes to corporate social responsibility, rate these things as the most important for brands to do.” This is how consumers voted:
    • Pay their taxes, treat people fairly, respect the environment and not use it as a PR opportunity – 58%
    • Let their customers influence which charities the brand should support – 16%
    • Take a public stand on causes like LGBTQ+ equality, Black Lives Matter, climate change, female body confidence – 15%
    • Support charities that the brand themselves choose – 11%
  • We also saw a clear pecking order emerge in terms of the progressive causes that consumers want to see supported. This could probably be simply explained by how controversial or political consumers rate those causes to be. Sustainability and Female body positivity tied at the top end of causes that consumers wanted to see supported, but the least supported was Black Lives Matter. 20% of consumers said they didn’t want brands to support this cause.

Also very revealing was that when we previewed the survey with marketing contacts outside the agency we got a very strong pushback and warnings not do the research. For instance: “It could be seen as divisive – we’re not sure it’s a good idea” and even “It isn’t inclusive enough.” (No, don’t know.)

The contrast with consumers’ response to the survey couldn’t have been greater. We had more free text responses than we have had from any similar survey. 20% left a comment and a quarter of those were (completely unsolicited) comments about the survey itself and 80% were positive: The response could be summed up as: “Why has no-one ever asked what we think about this stuff? So glad to be finally asked”.

There is a very good explanation for this different response from marketers and consumers.

A guest at our research launch event – Andrew Tenzer from Reach Solutions – pointed this out very well: “The idea that people are sitting at home thinking about what a brand believes is just delusional . . . the fact that we are sitting here thinking about social purpose advertising while most people are actually worrying about the cost of living, and how they are going to pay their electricity bills.”

Andrew went on to point out that marketers are different from the mainstream. They are generally drawn from privileged backgrounds and are WEIRD – from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic elite.

And research he and Ian Murray did for their paper ‘The Empathy Delusion’ showed how marketers believe they have both a superior moral framework to the mainstream and more empathy. However, the same research showed that both were a delusion.

So, what can small to medium-sized business and agency owners learn from this? Firstly I suggest that they consider whether their client’s worldview is WEIRD like theirs, or more like the mainstream majority who responded to our survey.

The second thing I would point out is that small businesses that support, partner with, or do pro bono work in their community by supporting a local charity are not ‘curious and confused’ as one contributor to the Summit claimed. The assertion was made that there is a kind of stepping stone to CSR and ESG heaven that leads small business away from anything as basic and naïve as supporting local charities towards the required orthodoxy of promoting progressive causes. I would suggest that any small business actively involved with a local charity resist this idea.

As I pointed out at the Summit, I would much rather our staff have time off work to volunteer at our local children’s hospice (as they do) than have them sit in front of a computer trying to work out whether they emit more carbon dioxides in the office or WFH. I have no doubt in my mind which provides more societal benefit.

My third observation about content from the Summit about vetting the moral compass of clients: Sorry, but who are you to sit in moral judgement (see above ‘superior moral framework’) over your clients and prospects? It was suggested that agencies could easily pick out the type of clients they shouldn’t work with: those in the gambling industries, in fossil fuels or who appeared to have unacceptable politics or opinions. So I would leave you with this thought. Presumably a company that made life-saving drugs must have a moral purpose and would presumably sail through your client vetting?

Is there any kind of turpitude Pfizer haven’t been fined for?

Lastly, because I know I sound curmudgeonly, something very positive (actually there was lots of very well-intentioned thoughts from some very sincere people and a generally positive vibe at the summit as you might expect) that I thought came from the summit.

This represented a very positive way forward with regard to ‘Brand Purpose’. I have long argued that marketers should differentiate Brand Purpose from Social Purpose – they can be the same thing (Patagonia) but very rarely are. We know from our research that the whole subject confuses the consumer and also know has been ridiculed by the financial and investment community.

Surely brands and companies should be considering what their net impact is on society? One of the good things about the B Corporation initiative is that it demands applicants go through a really very vigorous audit of their impact. All corporations do some ill to the planet and society. But with a more conscious effort to be a force for good, the balance sheet could be constantly monitored to ensure it is positive. Perhaps looking at ‘Net Impact’ would be a much better approach than confusing everyone with ‘Brand Purpose’.

Our research: “Is your brand too woke” can be downloaded here:

Posted 18 November 2022 by Chris Bullick