What brands can learn from the mistakes of government

Don’t play fast and loose with people’s hearts

FD Roosevelt once said, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. Or was it Spider-Man? No matter. As the Brexit deal (or no deal) hits global headlines, I recall an Edelman article published in October which showed evidence that brands, more than governments, are being trusted to bring about positive societal change. (Cue a raft of brands justifying their purpose-led positioning.) However, brands would do well to consider the reasons behind this transfer of power, and the responsibility they now carry.

As brands (and their manifestos) become the stewards of positive social change, it’s worth asking where governments are going wrong.

Around the world, governments have come to represent disarray and in-fighting. They are portrayed as an ineffectual talk-shop at best; vested interests and biased partisanship at worst. In the media, headlines are inspired by the extremes; all of the palatable and workable progress is dull. Governments have struggled because as the world has become more complex, interconnected and ambiguous, they’ve sought to simplify in order to win over an ever-sceptical electorate. This strategy has been fraught with danger as the simpler, more seductive message has become un-deliverable, sowing growing levels of discontent.

Contrast this with a resurgent business sector; the most valuable businesses are larger than the economies of some nations. Start-up founders are the new rock stars. We’ve even found time to believe in unicorns. Silicon Valley and similar hubs around the world have given birth to new and exciting enterprises that are using technology to solve all manner of challenges facing humanity. And major brands, emboldened by findings that consumers are compelled by good business, are seeking to pull on consumers’ heartstrings through emotive purpose-fuelled brand campaigns.

While brands ride the crest of this positive reputational wave, they have the benefit of not being mandated to change society – they just have to sell things. But as society starts to put greater trust in brands to bring about change, and brands exploit this shift, the ‘say-do gap’ will be trickier to close.

Well-informed customers are already punishing brands for purpose over-reach. Barclays, a UK bank, claimed that they’re there to “help people achieve their ambitions – in the right way”. Now their managers are hauled in front of courts for malpractice: they are one of the worst performing UK banks with droves of customers leaving. Everyone knows that Pepsi is more suited to quenching thirst than quelling riots. LUSH customers get confused about what undercover police indiscretion has to do with buying bubbling bath bombs.

So, what to do? Purpose is powerful. Purpose is good for business and society. Purpose can be an intrinsic motivator for employees, driving performance. And customers are open to bold promises of change. But just like a hit song, the more it’s played, the more it fades into the background. There are three things brands can learn from the missteps of politicians in order to harness the power of purpose responsibly.

1) Ditch the lofty: It’s all well and good to talk about making the world great again; brands often use this kind of language to give meaning to the work employees do. However there is evidence that such promises can disenfranchise employees as the purpose is seen as overly grand, removed from the daily realities of work and therefore potentially unattainable.

2) Choose authenticity over virtue: Focusing on doing what you do best can be very effective at motivating employees and attracting customers. Brewdog’s mission “To make other people as passionate about craft beer as we are”, is a down-to-earth and effective example. Focusing on their own true sphere of influence - passion for beer - is powerful without promising the world.

3) Make real: If you’re going to break points 1 and 2, then at least put systems in place to deliver on your promise! Unilever’s purpose to “Make sustainable living commonplace”, though lofty and virtuous, is believable because of the lengths they go to demonstrate how they’re backing their actions with words, across health and wellbeing, environment and community impact.

The Brexit Leave campaign, and its seductive slogan, “Take Back Control”, proved devastatingly effective; it’s clear now how removed this simple soundbite was from the complexity of making ‘control’ real. As brands weigh in with their change-the-world purpose statements, they’d do well to remember that getting the pulse racing is only the beginning. When the adrenalin fades, it has always been the ability to deliver on your promises that builds true trust...and just maybe, changes society for the better.

By Adrian Pring, Senior Strategist