Today's consumers are smart and well informed. They can see through half-hearted attempts by brands claiming to support social injustices or well-meaning environmental issues, argues Kantar's Graham Staplehurst.

The use of carefully chosen language and imagery to generate more sales and shameless ‘bandwagon jumping’ is often treated with the skepticism it deserves. Token attempts to align a brand with a worthy cause are no longer enough. Consumers appreciate businesses that are driven by some direction other than simply making a profit. Brands can benefit by showing a clear purpose and recognising the impact they are having on people and resources, and developing strategies to address these growing concerns.

Brands caught communicating disingenuous or insincere messages risk losing trust and will fail to achieve meaningful engagement with consumers. They may even find themselves having to work much harder to restore their damaged reputations.

A recent example highlights the need for brands to think carefully before trumpeting their efforts to appease a wider audience. Tumblr’s self-imposed ban on almost all forms of nudity from its platform failed to consider the wider definition of adult content. While censoring sexually explicit material from the site was generally welcomed, the policy was shown up as woefully ineffective when racist and white supremacist Nazi propaganda appearing on the platform alongside content promoting Black History month.

Gillette and Pepsi are among other notable brands to have received criticism following attempts to join the political conversation on the progressive side and missing the mark. These brands may have been sincere in intent, but they were faulty in execution (not to mention the fact that in Gillette’s case the brand was still charging more for women’s razors than men’s).

However, some may argue that the worst offenders are the countless brands that we’ve all ignored because the message is so pointless that it doesn’t even spark debate within the industry.

Perhaps the problem with brands getting it wrong lies in the widespread misinterpretation of how we define ‘brand purpose’? Purpose should first and foremost define why your brand exists; purpose is the impact your brand should seek to have on people’s lives and the world they live in.

The term is sometimes misunderstood and is often confused with a brand’s mission. Purpose has to fit with overall brand (and corporate) strategy, not just adopting a noble cause that is in some way disconnected from the brand’s equity or competencies. Perhaps worst of all, the idea of purpose can be abused by exploiting a social issue without any real commitment or intent by the brand to address it in a meaningful way – wokewashing.

Consumers, particularly younger generations, are a driving force in exerting pressure on companies to address global issues and ‘right the wrongs’ by persuading brands to step up and take action. In Kantar’s US Monitor survey for example, research found that 72% of 12-20-year-olds say brands play an important role in society and are responsible for making it better. Half of them said they would be prepared to switch, avoid or boycott brands based on their stand on societal issues.

But it’s not just younger consumers that are making their voices heard. Responsible living is being driven by multi-generational groups of socially aware consumers. Brands are implementing ‘mindful marketing’ strategies and waking up to the fact that being more aware of environmental issues and social inequalities doesn’t just make moral sense but also economic sense.

Alongside perceived innovation, strong communication, brand experience and love, purpose represents one of Kantar’s five key drivers of building a strong brand in today’s digital world.

In a 12-year study of brand value growth, Kantar revealed that brands with a high sense of purpose grew their brand value twice as much as brands with an average score. Also, this year’s BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands report revealed that for the first time, environmental concern for the planet and sustaining personal well-being can drive brand value growth across multiple categories.

Getting it squared away in a circular economy

The ‘circular economy’ is fast becoming a reality as big brands publicly take on this ambition and develop effective and, importantly, profitable business models that leave no trace.

With many companies looking at ways to reduce their carbon footprint and the impact of fast fashion, the apparel sector has been active in this area. We’ve seen the H&M Group roll out a large-scale recycling scheme across its portfolio, Patagonia’s continued commitment to a “repair more, buy less” philosophy with its “Worn Wear” programme, and Reebok presenting a biodegradable sneaker made with new materials.

Adidas’ partnership with Parley—the network set up to protect the world’s oceans—helped propel plastic waste responsibility into the mainstream as ocean plastic is used to manufacture athletic footwear. The sports brand’s commitment to circularity can also be seen following the announcement of FutureCraft. Loop, a running shoe made to be remade and will never have to be disposed of.

It's not just apparel that is working hard in this area. P&G, Unilever and PepsiCo are now running trials as part of the Loop packaging initiative, which is introducing refills across a wide range of brands and products.

And after famously declaring we are reaching “peak stuff,” IKEA has recently unveiled plans to rent its products to consumers for the first time. The world’s largest furniture manufacture will trial a leasing system across it Swedish stores as it strives to become a “net-positive” business by 2030. Under the new approach, customers would rent their furniture for a set period before it’s taken back for either refurbishment, upcycling, resale or recycling.

The notion of sustainability and circularity isn’t new, but it’s now no longer a useful ‘nice to have’. Customers, employees, and indeed the planet, are demanding fundamental changes. The best-loved brands will be those that achieve a balance between profit and purpose by re-thinking operations and finding solutions that are fully sustainable for the environment, thereby painting a positive future for their business, and society at large.