The trend has been accelerated by COVID-19, with more Indian consumers expecting brands to communicate with them and to help them during this pandemic. Brand purpose can also be a competitive differentiator amid the spike in online shopping

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands in India can take a stand and communicate effectively. Read more

For a brand to successfully stand out from the crowd in India, consumers need to be able to understand what that brand stands for, what its mission is, and how it’s putting this into action.

Brand purpose has been gaining momentum for some years now, but like many other trends, it’s been accelerated by the pandemic. COVID-19 has pushed societies to the limit, and our research clearly shows that Indian consumers expect brands to take some of the weight.

Lessons from the pandemic

Two-thirds of consumers want to see brands supporting people during COVID-19.

But they also want companies to actively communicate their efforts.

  • 80% of Indian internet users approve of brands running advertising showing how they are responding to coronavirus or helping customers.
  • 85% approve of brands contacting customers directly to do the same.
  • In both cases, Indians are between 30-40% more likely than the global average to strongly approve of these measures.

Of course, the pandemic is fairly unique from a corporate governance point of view. People view COVID-19 as a deadly but temporary break from normality. Its impact is also so universal that there are many immediately tangible and meaningful ways for brands to show support at almost every level of society.

With the exception of climate change, other important issues outside of the pandemic might not be seen as existential threats to our way of living. They may be more embedded in society, and their impact may be disproportionately felt among specific groups with less of a public platform.

Visibly tackling these complex issues will not be so clear-cut, which means there’s inherently more risk to brand safety when communication of purpose needs to be backed by action.

That doesn’t mean companies should shy away from taking a more outspoken and purpose-driven approach. Since COVID-19, almost half of internet users in India say they expect brands to be more vocal about social causes.

Ruling out hollow gestures of solidarity means embodying the values of the social cause throughout the organisation. Consumers are quick to call out cases of “woke washing”. In India, consumers are more inclined to put companies under the microscope to make sure their words match their actions.

This is especially true of diversity. Being such a rich and diverse country with so many sub-cultures, Indians place a strong emphasis on holding companies accountable for diversity efforts at every step of the organisation. In fact, Indian internet users are around 30-40% more likely than the global average to say that a lack of diversity in the overall workforce, in senior leadership, and in suppliers, would most concern them about a company.

Brand purpose as a competitive differentiator

We shouldn’t just view the current drive behind brand purpose as a logical reaction to the public health crisis. This is certainly a major factor, but it doesn’t capture the full extent of why companies are under more pressure to be taking a stand on the issues that matter to people.

There are other forces being accelerated by the pandemic which are positioning brand purpose as an important competitive differentiator.

A much larger share of commerce is now being carried out online, with 60% of Indian internet users saying they plan on shopping online more frequently following COVID-19.

This does not just mean purchasing more of the same products online, like clothing and electronics. These categories have seen greater shares of online purchases since the pandemic, but the most significant growth has come from minor purchases. Grocery, personal care and household goods have all seen increases of around 20% in the number of Indians buying these items online in the past month.

In a world where interactions with a brand’s products are increasingly digital, companies need to get more creative in how they distinguish themselves from the competition.

Even though the typical tools brands use to distinguish themselves (retail environments, sales associates, packaging etc.) may be inaccessible, they can still increase their value in the eyes of their customers by focusing energy on their digital experience, customer service quality, and even the social issues they choose to support.

A quarter of internet users in India say knowing a company is environmentally friendly would increase their likelihood of purchasing a product online, putting them 26% ahead of the global average for this purchase driver.

To obtain this knowledge, consumers in India tend to make fuller use of the tools and channels at their disposal to research products compared to their global counterparts. On average, by Q4 2020, they were using more channels to get information on products than they were in Q1 2020.

Taking a stand

Gone are the days when companies were better off avoiding hot button issues. With more reasons to scrutinise the responsibility of a company, and more information at consumers’ fingertips, this might look like hazardous territory for brands.

But the data clearly shows that mission-driven companies with a strong perspective on social causes tend to stick in the minds of Indian consumers. For this reason, brands need to be pragmatic about the matter, choosing the causes which are relevant to their company and their mission. Over-stretching in the support of causes can increase the risk of efforts being interpreted as hollow.