Posted by Sarah Weigold
9 January, 2020

From discerning customers to a difficult political climate, it's a potentially trying time for brands. So how could doing good help them to survive?

It’s that time of year when everyone and their dog is busily making predictions about ‘the future of branding’. Apparently 2020 will see bold primary colours, a return to serif fonts and brands dabbling in experimental augmented reality. But I have a feeling that the biggest change in branding this year will be on a much deeper level. You don’t need me to tell you that there are a lot of problems in our world today. Who are we turning to for solutions? With government unable or unwilling to act, local groups strapped for cash and trust in charities shattered by scandal, people are increasingly looking to brands to make a difference. Customers are demanding that brands not only offer the products and services they want, but also help to solve our social and environmental problems.

But why the sudden demand? Many of these issues have been around for decades (air pollution, poverty, racial inequality… we didn’t start the fire). If you’ll allow me a quick TED talk moment, I think we’ve hit a perfect storm of identity crisis and disappointment with capitalism.

First: identity. In the past society gave clear ways to categorise people based on work, family and education, so a married doctor and father of three was a ‘good person’. Now that we’ve lost these categories (not necessarily a bad thing!) we’re trying to prove our goodness to each other through the causes and issues we support – often cynically referred to as ‘virtue signalling’.

Second: disappointment. Since 2007, when the financial crash proved that things don’t always get better (you lied, Brian Cox), questions have been raised about whether capitalism is all it’s cracked up to be. As a result we’re all more suspicious of brands, especially the bigger ones, and they can no longer get away with existing just to make money for their shareholders. And it’s this combination of customers trying trying to prove their virtue and a lack of trust in brands that’s resulting in this current demand for brands to do good.

I’m convinced that the brands that will survive through 2020 and beyond will be the ones making a difference in our world. But if you’re still on the fence, here are the five reasons (other than it being the right thing to do) why I believe doing good makes great business sense.

1. To target millennials

The elusive millennial customer: brands want them, advertisers throw money at them, and focus groups try to figure them out. But my generation grew up online, where trends come and go quicker than you can say ‘crippling student debt’, so as soon as you’ve worked out what we like, it will have changed. One of the only consistent and defining characteristics of the millennial generation is our desire to make a difference, and we’re willing to put our money where our mouths are – 70% of US millennials said they would pay more for a product that makes an impact on issues they care about. ASOS and Superdrug have quickly solidified their place as millennial cult favourites with their commitment to banning animal products and introducing vegan and cruelty-free ranges. Even unlikely brands such as LADbible are getting in on the act with a campaign against ocean plastics.

2. To create a unique selling point

Brands that do good can really stand out from the crowd. Take TOMS shoes as an example: remove the branding and they’re the same as any other canvas shoes – in fact they’ve really just rebranded the dreaded PE plimsolls. Practically, they don’t offer anything different to their competitors, but they’re distinctive because of the simple message of good – ‘Buy these shoes and we’ll give another pair away’. The same goes for products with green credentials. When faced with the information overload of an aisle of hand soaps with anti-bacterial, moisturising and dermatological properties, a simple green message from brands like Ecover stands out from the rest.

3. To make your brand believable

Outside of the design and business world, branding is a bit of a joke. While I take great joy in slipping the phrase ‘What if the BBC was a fruit?’ into particularly long brainstorming sessions, it’s a reminder that many people don’t take the concept of ‘brand’ seriously. And who can blame them? Their experience of branding has probably been a box-ticking management exercise, with expensive brand values proudly displayed on posters, but having no impact on employees and customers. Doing good is a simple way to prove your brand values. In a previous life, I worked on a campaign for Mothercare that invited parents to donate old baby clothes in-store, which were then gifted to local parents in need of support. It was a great way for Mothercare to show that they literally care about mothers, but also to demonstrate their values of community, empathy and inclusion. Patagonia – a brand built around a love for the outdoors – also does this really well, demonstrating their values by funding environmental activists and repairing or recycling their products.

4. To engage employees

While your dad may have been happy working at the same desk from the day he left school to the day he retired, nowadays we’ll change jobs when we get bored. To keep hold of their staff, employers are trying to make work fun again with lunchtime yoga, Prosecco Fridays and slides. But what many people are actually looking for is meaningful work. Of 2,000 UK employees surveyed, 42% wanted to work for an organisation that has a positive impact on the world and 36% would work harder if their company benefitted society. Whilst faceless fundraising activities aren’t going to do anything for morale (‘You know why I love my job? Because once a year I get to do it dressed as batman and only have to pay £5 for the privilege’), rethinking your brand purpose to include tangible social benefit or offering face-to-face volunteering really will.

5. To stretch your ad budget

We all know that the news is pretty depressing these days, but the flip side of this is that positive news stories are golden. Doing good and then telling that story really well could be your ticket to free publicity. Dominoes did this expertly with their Paving for Pizza campaign. They asked people to report potholes in their city and then went and filled them in, all in the name of preserving pizzas, naturally. With more than 54,000 social media mentions and coverage from national TV and newspapers, Dominoes got maximum media attention for the cost of filling in potholes. This trick doesn’t just work for multi-national purveyors of pizza: recently a local restaurant went viral for their offer of a free drink to anyone who filled a bucket with beach litter.

Feeling inspired to make a positive difference with your own brand? Get in touch with us.