Brands face obstacles to pursuing a purpose, but the opportunity is immense. Alex Gordon of Sign Salad explores how a crisis of trust is feeding the trend and how some brands have uncovered a competitive advantage and how others have failed.

Increasingly, people doubt the authenticity and credibility of traditional authority institutions. Between Donald Trump’s ascent to power, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, and the perceived corruption of big banks and Hollywood moguls, it’s easy to see why.

At the same time, we’re more ethically conscious and purpose-driven than ever before – particularly when it comes to our purchase decisions. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to endorse or boycott brands based on personal ethics, as we saw this week with Burger King, and the backlash toward its ‘’racist’’ chopsticks ad and, conversely, the divided reaction to Nike’s strident campaign with Colin Kaepernick last year.

Even digital banks - arguably organisations capable of some ethical flexibility – are not immune to this cultural shift. This week Revolut was forced to drop its ’get sh*t done’ slogan, for example, following criticism of senior management’s approach to compliance. Competitor Monzo, meanwhile has teamed up with The Big Issue to make its magazine re-sellable, so vendors can earn more.

In many ways, consumers have started looking to brands to address the problems that governments are ignoring or powerless to solve. It’s easier for brands to focus on specific socio-political flashpoints like environmental sustainability - taking action to overcome tangible problems like unrecyclable packaging - and win people’s trust. Unlike governments, they don’t have to promise to fix big issues, and fall short.

Last week for instance, Patagonia decided to stop selling corporate branded vests to financial firms, amid plans to target more environmentally-focused companies. This might seem like small fry in the grand scheme of climate change, but this decisive act will resonate with consumers. By changing their business model to respond to emerging cultural trends (in this case, the penchant for finance entrepreneurs to wear branded vests), Patagonia are demonstrating they have skin in the game – their purpose has teeth.

The shift toward ‘conscious consumerism’ has been growing in recent years, but as Millenials come to dominate the global workforce, it will reach its peak. Millenials, and their successors Gen Z, are more concerned with brand ethics than previous generations. When it comes to brand loyalty, at least 42% of Millennials take the ethical and the moral standards of the company into account before parting with their hard-earned cash. As they become the key driving force of the economy, we can therefore expect ethical integrity to become an increasingly important differentiator for brands, giving CSR a whole new meaning.

For recently emerging brands, this isn’t so much of an issue. They’ve been onto this trend for some time, with many shaping their entire business models around a specific ethical problem or message. There are swathes of companies at large whose sole purpose is to tackle mental health issues, or environmental decay, for instance.

Larger legacy brands, on the other hand, have their work cut out for them. Even if they have a bigger portion of the market, they’re now under pressure to show they have some kind of ethical purpose – one that may never have existed before. Having long-since relied on the appeal of functionality and emotional benefit to market their products, this won’t be easy.

In fact, adapting in a way that’s authentic will be the biggest challenge for brands in the next few years. With social media and other digital tools now available for people to investigate brands and products in depth – like the ‘good on you’ app, which evaluates the sustainability of fashion products - ethical consumption will be subjected to ever more rigorous scrutiny.

Brands need to start incorporating a purpose or cause-led value into their brand DNA, through commitment and repetition. If a brand has no obvious ethical ethos, it should think about tapping into the cultural value systems of its audiences. Gillette did this in its most recent ad spot, by choosing to embed itself in the wider conversation around ‘toxic’ masculinity. Whilst it resonated with many of its consumers, it also alienated others – demonstrating that the purpose path is not an easy one to walk.

In the future we can expect to see more and more brands openly condemned for questionable behaviour. This may significantly affect their credibility in the eyes of consumers, so it’s time brands put their money where their mouth is and start playing an active role in improving the society around them, or risk becoming relics of the past.