I think we can all agree that brands pursuing purpose, promoting positive change in their societies can only be a good thing. 

But while, in the past, brands may have got away with merely talking the talk, paying lip service while never really committing to change in any substantial way. No longer. 

In fact, as brands have been finding out to their detriment, this can backfire big time. 

Now more than ever, companies must walk the walk, put their money where their mouth is, and lead from the front like never before.

Seventy-six per cent of the 33,000+ people surveyed for this year’s 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer say CEOs should take the lead on change, rather than waiting for the government to impose it.

And with nearly six in ten employees surveyed saying they look to their employer as a trustworthy source of information on contentious social problems, businesses must be clear, committed and authentic when it comes to the views they champion and the causes they stand behind. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to their media campaigns.  

While research regularly shows that ads generating the most emotional triggers can boost sales, jumping on the bandwagon or using a genuine movement for a brand’s own gain will be seen through by consumers and pounced upon.

Take 2017’s Pepsi advert. The ad shows Kendall Jenner watching, then joining, a protest and then handing a police officer on duty a can of Pepsi. Perceived by many as co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement, it was widely criticised and the ad was pulled. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted: If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi. 

Meanwhile, this month’s new ad by P&G for Gillette that challenges men to shave their ‘toxic masculinity’ is dividing opinion. The campaign, built around the #MeToo movement, racked up 12 million YouTube views in just a few days, has been trending on Twitter and received widespread global comment, both good and bad.

While many praised its efforts to change the dialogue on masculinity, others accused it of tarring all men with the same ‘bad’ brush. Yet more threatened to ditch the brand for good.

Interestingly, while there were similar calls for boycotting Nike after its 2018 ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the brand went on to report stronger than expected growth in its most recent earnings report.

There’s no doubt about it – taking a stand poses a risk. According to WARC’s Effective Use of Brand Purpose Report, people base many of their purchase decisions (their response to advertising) not on whether product X has more magic ingredient than product Y, but on the subconscious, less rational, considerations such as instinct, gut- feel, fit or impulse. And you can’t please all of the people all of the time. 

But like it or not, companies are being called upon to wade in on society’s greatest debates by consumers and employees who are increasingly looking to business, rather than government, to effect real change. 

Sixty-seven per cent of employees surveyed for this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer expect that prospective employers will join them in taking action on societal issues.

These days a company needs to do more than simply produce a great product or service. It needs to be – and be seen to be – a positive force in society. Time to get stuck in.