The rollercoaster of 2020 has brought the role of brands in wider society into sharp focus, with COVID-19, economic crisis and Black Lives Matter up-ending ‘marketing as usual’. What does this mean for brand purpose, asks WARC's Anna Hamill?

Brand purpose, and the role of brands in creating a better world, has long been a topic of discussion at any marketing event you can name. But, away from the stage lights, for many brands it’s been more of a ‘nice to have’ that takes a backseat to the core business of hard sales. Well-intentioned statements haven’t always matched action on the ground. In 2020, building a more environmentally-friendly supply chain or achieving genuine diversity among staff remains a huge challenge for many brands. Still, tin-eared work occasionally comes out which sees a collective gasp shudder through the industry.

But 2020 is shaping up to be a defining year for brand purpose, and the future of marketing as a whole.

This year, brands are enduring relentless waves of crisis which have up-ended business-as-usual: first the COVID-19 pandemic, then a cataclysmic economic recession, and now, widespread social unrest. Ask any Chief Marketing Officer how they’ve spent the last few weeks, and the answer is likely to be frantically pivoting long-planned campaigns (and then pivoting them again, ten days later). WARC’s ad spend data indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic has already forced brands to slash budgets. Political turmoil reigns. The economic crisis is beginning to hit, with millions losing their jobs and consumer spending plummeting during lockdown. Many consumer behaviours will likely change forever, and brands will need to quickly adapt to the “new normal”. What’s the new normal? Well, no one is quite sure about that yet.  

All of this in just three months.  

Research in recent years has shown that consumers across all age groups expect brands to contribute to ‘social good’. Consumers are more educated than ever on issues of environmental and social justice, and half have boycotted a brand that didn’t align with their values. Most recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed centuries of systemic racism against Black people into the mainstream public consciousness at a scale not seen since the 1960s civil rights movement. In 2020, the stakes are immense. People are demanding action more than ever, and expecting brands to take a stance on the issues they care about – not just donating or making a public statement, but living and breathing the values throughout the whole brand from advertising, to hiring, to supply chain partners. A high-profile brand call-out is only ever a tweet away.

In these tumultuous times, marketers are grappling with the realisation that brand purpose is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but increasingly a moral imperative in the eyes of consumers and even their own employees. Marketing really isn’t just about selling things anymore.

The million dollar question now is: can the marketing and advertising industry rise to address this transformational moment in a real, tangible way?

Perhaps, this time, the answer is yes.

In recent weeks, the number of brands making big moves to address racism in response to Black Lives Matter has soared. Previously, companies such as Nike and P&G have been among few prepared to directly address racial discrimination, but other brands are now stepping up. In the UK, brands including high street bank Lloyds and pub chain Greene King have apologised for historical links to slavery, donating to charity groups serving Black communities. The CEO of Ben and Jerry’s, a long-time activist brand now owned by Unilever, called on customers to support defunding the police. Household staple food brands Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima’s – which both feature brand characters based on racist stereotypes of African-Americans – are being renamed and rebranded. Colgate is reviewing one its most popular Chinese toothpaste brands, the name of which translates to "Black person toothpaste". Johnson & Johnson’s skin-whitening products, long a cash-cow in Asia and the Middle East, are on the way out as well.

It seems shocking to many that for all the talk on brands doing good over the last few years, these blind spots on race still existed. But 2020 has shown that overwhelming demand for systemic change has now arrived in more ways than one, and there’s no going back.

As this year’s Cannes Lions takes place in spare rooms and at kitchen tables via video link, among marketers the mood is one of renewed resolve. This year, as part of Lions Live, the CMO Growth Council is asking tough questions of marketing leaders: what does real change look like at your brand? How will you be implementing and measuring it? And by when?

Accountability, it seems, is here to stay.

The truth is, no one really knows what’s going to happen next. As one marketing leader put it during a Lions Live breakout session this week, “the new normal changes every week”.

But what’s clear is that when it comes to purpose, participating in tangible, measurable change is no longer optional for brands. A recurring theme at Lions Live this week is that the time for talking is over, and it’s time for brands to get off the sideline and act. Consumers will be watching with interest.