This year’s WARC Awards for Asian Strategy winners proved that authentic commitment to a cause drives positive change and impacts brands, writes Grey’s Bitop Das Gupta.

The winners of this year’s Awards clearly reaffirm that strong brands are now evolving into new institutions. With faith in public institutions dropping, people are looking to businesses to take the lead on social and environmental change rather than waiting for the system to do it. They consider business as a force for positive social impact, rather than a soulless entity acting as a profit-making machine.

These strong brands are now acting as great leaders. They enthuse people to go from a despairing status quo to a more hopeful tomorrow. They are showing the way, inspiring action, staying consistently persistent and rallying people toward the destination – all contributing to solving real problems. So, what’s working in favour of these brands?

Consumers no longer want to invest their time, money and attention in brands that just sell quality products at fair prices. They want to make carefully considered choices to buy the brand that stands for a purpose they personally identify with, one that reflects their values and beliefs. This could be on important values such as family connections, health and wellbeing, or on broader societal issues such as women empowerment or getting through the pandemic – all depending on the category, the need of the hour and the person.

This has put brands in a spot where they are increasingly being assessed by their choices and efforts to make the world a better place. So, businesses and brands that are integrating their mission and purpose with sustainable values, social and humanitarian goals in ways that connect to their business can immensely influence people’s willingness to buy from, invest in and work for them – all factors that can shape brand reputation, create strong connections and forge enduring relationships with stakeholders.

Looking out for each other

When the pandemic started, many brands focused on serving their consumers to ensure the survival of their own businesses. What they didn’t get is how other people’s well-being was also critical for their own good. Consumers, this time, wanted to see how the brands are responding to the needs of its other stakeholders and form their trust for the brand based on that assessment. So, brands needed to join forces, think about others and act selflessly.

This year’s Grand Prix winner, Cadbury Celebrations, is a perfect example of such selfless behaviour: the brand looked outside itself and the category to hold out a helping hand to struggling independent businesses. The strategy not only benefited the local shops, but earned Cadbury Celebrations increased distribution and, in turn, sales growth.

Lifebuoy halted its advertising efforts to concentrate on a powerful public service campaign aiming to dispel myths around COVID and establish handwashing as the best preventative method. It not only took a step back to address this important issue, but actively encouraged consumers to use other brands’ soaps if those were the ones available to them.

Eventually, people have taken care of the brands that have looked out for their own people in the value chain.

Boldly standing up

Another social cause garnering huge traction, both for brands and people, is gender equality. For brands’ efforts to stand out and truly make an impact in this space, they need to be authentic, bold and responsible.

Winning brands Dove and SK-II embody all three elements. Their authenticity comes from committing to the cause over a long period of time. Rather than simply trying to convince people that they care about it, they have made sure that consumers could see their real commitment towards it. They have also been bold and responsible in approaching the topic. Without shuddering or playing conformist, these brands have taken the gender equality conversations to places where discrimination actually takes place.

Making a difference

Beyond supporting audiences during the pandemic and furthering women's rights, we could think of many more social causes that need addressing in our world. What is reassuring is to see, with this year’s winners, is that brands can play a part in driving positive change.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC's 2021 Asian Strategy Report.