This year’s Valentine’s Day was especially lovely as I received overwhelming interest around a topic that is close to the hearts of many of my colleagues, friends and family. It confirmed for me that sustainability is not just a romantic notion, but also a business imperative as everyone loves brands that – truly – care.

It’s heartening to know that it’s not just the big brands or usual suspects who can afford to care. Asian brands have joined the bandwagon and put purpose on their business agenda:

  • E-mart Inc and Lotte Mart are active around sustainable packaging and sourcing
  • Alibaba puts philanthropy at the core of its business model
  • Tetra Pak wins awards in Thailand
  • ITC's hygiene brand Savlon promotes hand-washing among school children in India
  • Tencent’s AI-facial recognition technology helps tracks missing children in China

In a world of more conscious consumption, many global brands are weaving purpose into the fabric of their businesses. With 90% of consumers in Asia Pacific wanting brands to stand for something, brands now have an expectation ‘to do the right thing’ or risk consumer backlash.

In the past decade, the role of brands has changed from making a positive impact in people’s lives, to making a positive impact in people’s lives and the world they live in.

Doing well by doing good

Brands live their purpose in different ways. Some businesses were built from the beginning with the belief in mind, for example Toms and Warby Parker have built their business models to support their purpose. Both brands have a ‘Buy a Pair, Give a Pair’ program that has donated millions of shoes and glasses to those in need. Others have interlaced purpose into their campaigning, for example Dove’s Real Beauty campaign that has run successfully for over fifteen years and began the movement for female empowerment in advertising.

And still others, which will probably become a much larger group this decade, are like Microsoft. A few years ago it was considered too expensive for Microsoft to become carbon neutral. But this year at the global Davos conference, Microsoft has pledged not only to become carbon neutral by 2030, but also to create negative emissions until it has ‘paid back’ all the carbon emissions it has created since 1974. These businesses all demonstrate that purpose done right can deliver profits.

Brands with purpose have grown in brand value twice the average, according to Kantar’s BrandZ data. Unilever's ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew more than 50% faster than the rest of the business and accounted for 60% of annual growth. 

What matters to consumers in APAC?

Throughout the APAC region, ‘good health and wellbeing’ and ‘no poverty’ appeared within the top five most important issues of all countries. Younger people were more passionate about issues surrounding health, poverty, education, and hunger whilst older generations were more concerned with decent work and economic growth, clean water, and affordable energy.

Plastic is high on Asia Pacific's agenda

Plastic pollution is the second most pressing environmental issue in Asia Pacific (63%), after climate change, according to last year’s Kantar environmental poll.

Plastic waste is especially a top concern in countries where the environmental impact can be seen and felt, e.g. Philippines (75%) and Indonesia (74%) where it was the top issue.

The movement to reduce plastic waste has never resonated with Asia Pacific consumers more, with 73% of them taking reusable bags, 54% using refillable bottles, 50% of them being proactive in recycling and 43% avoiding excess packaging on food and products. 

The role of brands

With the vast majority of people in Asia Pacific (90%) believing that brands should be involved in social issues, how can brands link their purpose with those of the consumers they are looking to engage?

Consumers are looking to brands to make things easier for them and enable them to make better choices. Here are the top five requests from consumers to brands:

  1. Educate consumers about the issue
  2. Initiate and fund programmes to support the issue
  3. Fund the organisations directly involved in the issue
  4. Run campaigns to raise awareness
  5. Change business practices to support the issue

Consumers want brands to proactively fight for what they believe in and to lead the charge on problems facing the world today. However, simply promoting brand purpose is no guarantee of advertising success, as authenticity – or fit with the brand – is critical.

Our analysis shows that ads which promote a purpose and fit with the brand perform in the top quintile of all ads tested, while those which do not fit with the brand are some of the worst performers, even though they promote a purpose. These findings underscore what consumers want brands to do – not only raise awareness but also to behave differently themselves. It is this coherence between what brands do and say, which underpins authenticity.

I love the succinct way Luis di Como, Executive Vice President of Media at Unilever put it, speaking at the global Davos conference on a panel discussion in January: “We put purpose at the centre, because we believe that brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last, and people with purpose thrive”.

In 2020, there is both a moral and financial imperative to put purpose at the heart of everything brands do.