On issues like DEI, sustainability and purpose, APAC needs to be part of the conversation not as an afterthought, but core to global business purpose. Uncommon Kind, in partnership with WARC, outline why in this introduction to a new series – Purpose Incorporated – which offers brands guidance and inspiration on how to convert intent to meaningful impact.

Purpose Incorporated: A primer for brands in APAC

This article is part of a special series on how brands in APAC can go beyond profit to do good and do better for themselves and others. Read more.

Non-WARC subscribers can read this series in its entirety by accessing the articles via the landing page.

Key insights

  • Global brands often consider sustainability and DEI from a Western market perspective, ignoring implications for APAC.
  • Millennial and Gen Z are sceptical of “brand purpose”, believing brands join the social justice conversation only for profit.
  • Not understanding local desires and cultural norms makes Western DEI initiatives instruments of cultural imperialism.

As environmental, political and social crises escalate globally, we are witnessing the rise of a heightened social consciousness.

As brand marketers and advertisers, we’ve heard all this before.

The world is burning, diversity improves the bottom line and consumers want businesses to take responsibility for pressing global issues. It seems every report from market research agencies to management consultancies has the same insight: consumers are more likely to purchase from brands that are diverse, sustainable and ethical.

While these data-based findings should galvanise brands to interrogate their business structures, executive representation and index their social impact, consumer sentiment would indicate brands aren’t doing enough.

Part of the disillusionment comes from “activism burnout” or “compassion fatigue”, especially among disenfranchised minorities who feel like they’ve been fighting their fight for too long – with very little emotional capacity and labour to give elsewhere. Where brands are concerned, we’re observing “brand activism burnout”. At a time where brand activism is no longer “nice to have” but an expected baseline business remit, we’ve become desensitised to diversity and sustainability press releases, social media posts and statements pledging to do better.

Millennial and Gen Z consumers, especially, are increasingly sceptical of “brand purpose”, believing brands only join the social justice conversation when there’s profit to be made. As technology continues to democratise our access to information and advocacy platforms, consumers aren’t afraid to take to social media to accuse brands of tokenism and performative activism. Where a brand’s diversity, equity and sustainability comms don’t reflect the reality of their supply chains, leadership representation or HR policies, consumers are hyper-educated and hyper-aware.

With cancel culture raging and holding businesses, CEOs and influencers accountable, consumers condemn brands for staying silent on issues of climate, race and sexual misconduct. Add to this a heightened consumer awareness of woke-washing, it seems inevitable that brands feel like they’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

When considering the boycotts, Instagram protests and TikTok cancellations, and the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” paralysis, we recognise brands feel overwhelmed. Businesses don’t know where to start, who to bring along the journey or how to communicate the starting point, progress and end game.

At its worst, brand activism feels like a zero-sum game. Brands feel they need to weigh up whether inaction will diminish brand trust and profit margins the most, or if a misstep from attempting to change will cause more damage.

But at its best, brand activism can affect real, substantial change and create platforms for consumers to participate in and enact change themselves.

We’re still talking about diversity, equity and inclusion and brand purpose from a Western market perspective

The murder of George Floyd ushered in a turning point for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Businesses announced initiatives and released statements with varying degrees of sincerity, commitment and success. While Western multinationals fortified global diversity quotas and increased their marketing spend on diversity campaigns, not all initiatives translated seamlessly to APAC markets.

Global brands often consider sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) from a Western market perspective, which ignores the implications for the largest and fastest growth markets found in APAC.

Given APAC’s sprawling geography and heterogeneity, there are fundamental differences between implementing DEI and sustainability in APAC and Western markets. It seems obvious that global brands must have a nuanced strategy and road map when cascading global mandates to local APAC markets. But too often, global brands assume concepts of diversity and inclusion, individualism, and minority representation have universal meaning, appeal and application. But what does racial and ethnic diversity look like in ethnically homogenous countries like Japan and South Korea? And why do global brands focus on social causes that are far removed from the day-to-day struggles of poverty, socioeconomic exclusion and dissatisfactory public education in many APAC countries.

Climate action is an area where global brands tend to execute sustainability strategies that address the symptoms and not the cause. Yes, the climate crisis is felt everywhere, and the urgency and consumer desire for brands to act is almost universal – but the manifestations of the climate crisis differ, which means solutions must also differ.

In Southeast Asia, the climate crisis looks like a plastic pollution crisis. While a stop-gap solution would be transitioning to recyclable packaging and educating about single-use plastics, these brands ignore the realities and needs of a developing nation. When you go beneath the surface, plastic pollution in parts of Southeast Asia stems from a lack of working waste collection systems, sanitation systems and limited access to clean water. There’s also the issue of Western nations exporting approximately 75% of their plastic waste to APAC and offshoring manufacturing which generates waste, pollution and depletes natural resources.

This example is symptomatic of a wider approach to DEI and sustainability in APAC. We’re still seeing DEI in APAC panels with all Western market representatives – blanket LGBTQ+ HR policies to “bring your full self to work” without considering the nuances of self-expression and identity in Asian collectivist societies, where it’s less about “coming out to a true authentic self” but more about “inviting people in”.  

APAC needs to be part of the DEI conversation, not as an afterthought but core to global business purpose. Brands must understand the nuances between Western and APAC markets, the differences between and within individual markets. Without understanding local desires and cultural norms, or failing to consult and work with local communities, Western DEI frameworks and initiatives become instruments of cultural imperialism and a white saviour complex. Especially in underdeveloped APAC regions, DEI shouldn’t be about saving communities but accelerating progress towards self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Local, regional grassroots brands in APAC are already doing the work to help their communities get there and global Western brands can look to scale their impact or take note of what matters most on the ground.

Where to from here?

We recognise there is very little that instructs brands on bridging the gap between intention and action, and even less when it comes to bridging the value-action gap in APAC. There is a swathe of theory and academic literature out there, and a quick search will bring up landmark and award-winning DEI campaigns such as P&G’s “Ariel #SharetheLoad” and SK-II’s “Leftover Women”.

Not every brand has the resources and network to execute such far-reaching global platforms and resources. We acknowledge this. The purpose of this series is, therefore, to provide practical, non-judgemental expertise to inspire business change, starting with what marketers and advertisers can do tomorrow. The series also aims to showcase the breadth of DEI initiatives in APAC and the local businesses already constructing ecosystems, building circular economies and serving their communities.

We intend this series to be a syllabus for addressing DEI in APAC. Our goal isn’t to shame or blame brands, but to educate and focus on actionable insights.

Across three chapters, we have curated expertise, examples and analyses from brand, advertising and media leaders in APAC to provide a region-first resource.

  • Chapter 1 focuses on theories, frameworks and mindsets. This chapter establishes a shared understanding of the existing paradigms and the steps required for leaders to reorient change to create a more equitable world where businesses are a force for good and for growth.
  • Chapter 2 is about practical applications, best practice and local APAC DEI case studies.
  • Chapter 3 focuses on orchestrating ecosystems to build purpose-led businesses.

While brands can initiate DEI tomorrow, it is important to note systemic and holistic change calls for a new business paradigm: where purpose stops being “brand purpose” and instead becomes “business purpose”.  

Diversity and inclusion awareness training, ad hoc donations and one-off brand campaigns are not enough. DEI and sustainability is not a tick-box exercise but an ongoing, iterative process that requires deep consultation with local communities, entire ecosystem reinvention and overturning hiring practices beyond quotas to reviewing executive KPIs, years-long career progression pathways and redefining leadership in different cultural contexts

We recognise change takes years, requires investment and commitment of resources, budget and empathetic leadership. But if we focus on the 1%, we can do better today than yesterday, then we’ve started the journey already.

We need to collectively shift from “call out” to “call in” culture and allow businesses to own up to mistakes, re-educate and grow. The most important takeaway for marketers is to be guided by our hopes and not our fears because recent research and case studies show consumers are more likely to continue supporting purposeful brands even if they misstep. Consumers only want brands to admit their mistakes, be transparent with their problems and take meaningful steps to hold themselves accountable to change.

Greta Thunberg reminded us in her Earth Day 2021 Speech: “The young people are the ones who are going to write about you in the history books. We [the children] get to decide how you will be remembered.”

Greta’s advice is for us to choose wisely – whether we want our children to ask us where we were and what we were doing when the world around us was burning.