As the movement to stop climate change gains momentum, new brand campaigns seek to earn trust, but only concerted action will ensure their stories resonate, says Federico Gaggio.
In the same week millions of people around the world took part in the climate strike, a number of brands launched new advertising campaigns, joining the global conversation about the need for immediate action. Burger King invited kids to recycle all their plastic toys and create new ways to play. LEGO made a fantastic film calling to Rebuild the World. The Guardian affirmed their mission and belief that Hope is Power. The Financial Times declared a New Agenda, calling to Reset Capitalism. IKEA, E.ON, OVO Energy and others, issued climate-themed communications. We can admire the ambition and creativity of these campaigns, showing that brands are listening and engaging with grassroots movements. Finally, the media and business world are responding. Many in the marketing and creative industry feel we all need to take a stand, but what happens after we broadcast our intentions?
First, BlackRock’s Larry Fink and later the Business Roundtable in the US called for a reform of capitalism to serve more than just shareholders — balancing profits and purpose. But what does ‘balancing’ mean? Bill Bernbach said: it is not a principle until it costs you money. So is it purpose or profits first? Will the corporate world and the advertising industry go as far as confronting the role of consumerism and the growth mantra as the causes of the climate crisis? Are companies prepared to confront the full impact of their business models, and commit to systemic transformations to embrace a sustainable future?
Too often we have seen purpose used as posturing, ‘woke’ marketing, deception. Most corporate transformations I have seen tended to be reactive, motivated by protecting profit margins and share prices. There seems to be a reluctance to invest in long-term thinking while we seem to be doing just fine without it. Most of us acknowledge that we’re in a crisis, but we are still trapped in the exploitative, short-term mindset we inherited from the industrial age. This is not a communications problem. A radical shift of mindset is urgent and necessary. We need to redefine the core principles and values that drive our actions for the long-term.
Advertisers know that brands are built over time. Advertising campaigns are one element in a range of connected activities and experiences, all adding to (or detracting from) people’s perceptions of the brand. Working as a brand builder, I learned that brand narratives are not linear stories, with a beginning, middle and end, but emerge from ongoing dialogue between two communities: the organisation responsible for the brand and those who encounter it in their world. The brand story is not an output of marketing, but the outcome of all the interactions the company has with its customers, potential customers and other stakeholders.
Sometimes advertisers refer to campaign ideas as brand platforms— meaning frameworks from which multiple communication activities can be developed. But communications only broadcast the story as the company sees it. An actual platform for the brand needs to support two stories: the one guiding actions internally, and the one that people form in their minds when they experience the effects of those actions in the world. It requires defining key elements and place them in relation to each other: the beliefs and assumptions of what the brand is, what it stands for, and how it stands out. The principles that guide people’s actions — which need to be orchestrated across all touch points and stakeholder communities. The ideas that connect all activities through stories and experiences that resonate and engage people.
These elements inform the story the company would like the public to associate with the brand. While story suggests communication, shifting the focus onto actions highlights that building the brand is everyone’s responsibility — since every action contributes to brand perceptions. It also recognises the role of people outside the company in building the brand. It encourages brand owners to focus on doing things (that support the story they would like their customers to tell) rather than simply saying things (telling a story).
Brand owners, through communications, may control their side of the dialogue. But building brands requires constant attention to the development of both narratives for the whole story to come to life. “Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. Brands earn their trust through everyday concerted actions — meeting real needs, connecting honest purpose and values with our collective experience. Over-claiming and hypocritical behaviour can destroy it at once.