It’s reassuring to believe that humans make rational decisions based on facts. Until it comes to our purchasing decisions, that is. According to ethnographer and best-selling author, Simon Sinek, many of our consumer behaviours are driven by emotion rather than logic. We buy products because we have an emotional connection to the brand. Or, we think it demonstrates something about how we view ourselves or how we want others to view us.
Millennials and Gen Z are taking this concept one step further. We don’t just want to feel an emotional connection to the brands we support. We also want them to be mission-driven companies that align with our own values. As Sinek would put it, Millennials are driven by the ‘why’ behind a business.
At first glance, this sounds great. Shouldn’t we all be supporting brands that stand for social issues? For mission-driven brands, the answer isn’t that simple. The authenticity of many of these brands has been called into question. What happens when advocating for social issues clashes with shareholder returns? When the bottom line is leveraging the socio-political zeitgeist?
Today, people are shifting their trust from the government, and looking to global corporate entities to solve the world’s problems. The opportunity to advocate for social causes while simultaneously boosting revenue targets will be challenging, at best.
Purpose-driven brands are driving profits
A recent study by Accenture suggests that purpose-driven brands are seeing a higher ROI on their advertising dollars. This presents a major opportunity for brands looking to boost sales quickly. Many companies have taken note and begun hoping on the ‘purpose bandwagon’. Rainbow-themed products were ubiquitous this June 2019, in conjunction with Pride Month, a yearly celebration of the LGBTQ community in commemoration of the Stonewall riots.
A new phenomenon dubbed ‘femvertising’ is another relevant and timely example. This strategy employs pro-female talent, messages and imagery to empower women and girls. Advertising that promotes inclusivity and empowerment and also drives sales is a victimless act, right? The answer is far more complex than that. Especially as it relates to brand authenticity.
Mission driven brands and authenticity
When branding intersects with social and political issues like LGBTQ rights and feminism a number of larger questions emerge. In some cases, so does push back and criticism. In August 2019, indoor cycling studio SoulCycle and luxury gym chain Equinox came under fire for their affiliation with investor, Stephen Ross. He had hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump. The brands tried to remove themselves from political affiliation in their response statements. The problem? Equinox and SoulCycle both tell their members they stand for greater causes than just working out. SoulCycle tells riders: ‘come as you are and celebrate who you are. A ride will not only change your body, but your soul as well.’ When brands align themselves so closely with inclusivity and individuality, people want to become their customers. Another study by Accenture found that these same customers would take their business elsewhere if a brand doesn’t align closely with their values. In other words, authenticity matters to consumers.
Brands who have leveraged the body positivity movement have received similar backlash. This movement advocates for the acceptance of all body shapes and sizes in their marketing efforts. There have been a range of criticisms directed at the movement. One of the most interesting is that the body positivity movement does nothing to address why women feel poorly about their bodies. It doesn’t offer any tangible solutions. “I find body positivity an unrealistic expectation,” says Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, a therapist with years of experience treating eating disorders and weight issues. “People, in general, struggle to ‘love their bodies.’ Someone who has struggled for years with body image issues cannot suddenly change from body-hatred to loving the way they look.”
Lisa Diep, Chief Operating Officer of mission-driven Canadian clothing brand, Peace Collective, says she can understand where these types of consumer criticisms stem from. “Sometimes [...] companies are just looking for a quick buck, but there are a handful of companies/brands that have done it the right way. If a company is launching a Pride collection that is truly focused on raising awareness to the LGBTQ+ community. Or, better yet, raising funds to help a charity/organization within the LGBTQ+ community. It's a win for everyone involved when done for the right reasons,” she says.
Mission-driven brands demonstrate authenticity by incorporating meaningful action
Representation and diversity in advertising is, of course, not inherently a bad thing. It can be largely positive. It’s just not enough. If brands profess to represent more than their product, they need to incorporate meaningful action into their operations. Soofia Mahmood, Director of Strategic Communication & Executive Planning at The 519, a City of Toronto Agency that promotes health and participation of the LGBTQ2S communities, explains. “Those belief systems and messages must permeate across an organization– whether it is in hiring practices, policies, sourcing and production practices or customer service standards.”
Brands cannot selectively choose to leverage a movement or marginalized group in their marketing. They cannot remove themselves from the affiliation when difficult questions arise from their consumers.
“If an organization promotes LGBTQ2S inclusion through a marketing campaign during Pride, but their customer forms are not inclusive, their communications is heavily gendered [...] or the corporate culture is not inclusive, then it is not inclusion. Inclusion is a leap that leads to a shift in the ways in which an organization operates in its entirety – and it is an ongoing process that must never stop” says Mahmood.
For Peace Collective, inclusion has always been a central tenet of both their branding and company culture. Founder, Yanal Dhailieh, is the son of Syrian-Palestinian immigrants who arrived in Canada just two weeks before he was born. Dhailieh says he wanted the brand to represent unity. “Each and everyone of us at Peace Collective come from different places, have different backgrounds and speak different languages — but we’re all Canadians. We have a very diverse team that brings together amazing ideas. Especially when talking about creating a campaign or a collection about something we truly care about” says Diep.
Money talks. Spend wisely.
Here’s the good news. As consumers, we get a chance to cast a vote for or against brands with each dollar we spend. If a brand has entered the political or social arena with their advertising, they should be ready and willing to back up their position. And, we should be ready and willing to hold them to their word. Educate yourself and spend your money on brands that align with your beliefs. “If a brand is promoting inclusion, find out about how inclusive their staff culture is, what kind of social media engagement they do, if they participate in charitable partnerships, and [...] how inclusive their communications tools and practices are” suggests Mahmood.
She recommends that we not only challenge the brands we support, but also ourselves. “If we have a deeper understanding of intersectionality, oppression, and social justice, we won’t only make better consumption choices but we will be able to constructively impact change around us” she says. Let’s hold ourselves and the brands we choose to support to a higher standard.