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Even a pandemic couldn't make the public care more about brand purpose

Ian Murray, co-founder of research and strategy collective House51, designed and co-authored incisive research pieces ‘Gut Instinct’, ‘Empathy Delusion’ and now the ‘The Aspiration Window’ with Reach. From his data, he believes that ‘social virtue marketing’ is less about responding to demand in the marketplace and more about marketers' own need to signal their identity and values.

There’s an old saying about never wasting a good crisis. As recent events have shown, if you are out to change the world, unexpected events that disrupt people’s habits and norms provide ideal ‘moments of change’. So, it’s unsurprising that many people in our industry believe that Covid-19 has ‘changed everything’.

The crisis has certainly amplified the brand purpose narrative. For many, it’s self-evident that ‘doing good’ will be a source of competitive advantage for brands as the crisis unfolds, and in the post-Covid world that follows. 

In February 2020, we asked the public a series of straightforward questions about whether they trusted brands and advertisers to behave in a socially responsible way and to rank the factors that were most important to them in making purchase decisions. Then we put the same questions to a sample of advertisers and marketers drawn from across the UK. We were not interested in their professional marketing opinion - we wanted to know what mattered to them as ordinary members of the public.

Our data made difficult reading for brand purpose fans. The mainstream put little faith in social virtue messaging. And marketers didn’t believe in it either.

We found that just 15% of the mainstream and 20% of our industry trusted ‘brands and advertisers to act in a socially responsible way’. And social virtue was a low priority in buying decisions. Just over 1 in 10 of the mainstream gave factors like ‘a brand's position on social issues’ or ‘political stance and affiliations’ a role in their buying decisions.

However, the real blow for brand purpose advocates came in the response of advertisers and marketers to the same question. 80% of people working in ad land don’t consider these social virtue factors when making a buying decision.

To complete the picture, we asked our advertisers and marketers to estimate which factors were important to the mainstream. We found that our industry doesn’t believe this stuff matters to the mainstream either.

The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ was that it was good, old-fashioned attributes like value for money, customer service, quality, and reliability matter most to the mainstream and to people working in our industry.

Our industry was consumed with what Mark Ritson has described as ‘the pornography of change’. So, we doubled down and repeated our fieldwork at the peak of lockdown and ‘here for you’ marketing in April 2020.

And… nothing changed. It’s still about value, quality and reliability and there has been no uptick in belief in social virtue marketing.

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We were not surprised. The crisis has hobbled our economy and we’ll have to adapt. But, in ‘The Aspiration Window’ we find little support for many of the bigger claims that have been made during the crisis. Returning to the frameworks we used in ‘Gut Instinct’ in 2018 and ‘Empathy Delusion’ in 2019, we find no rewiring of moral foundations, no reset in basic values and no closing of the empathy gap between ad land and the mainstream.

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This leaves the debate about the merit of social virtue marketing in the same place as it was before the crisis.  Our critique focuses on the (mis)understanding of human behaviour that underpins many brand purpose strategies. Our research shows that ad land is not good at discerning the values and goals of the mainstream. This is what makes explicit messaging around social virtue such a hubristic and risky endeavour.

Furthermore, a reliance on explicit messaging also seems at odds with basic principles of psychology and behavioural science that marketers have so enthusiastically adopted in recent years. There is a cognitive dissonance (where people experience mental discomfort due to their conflicting beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours). We argue that this explains the disconnect between the orthodoxy around brand purpose and what people believe really motivates buying. Brand purpose is simply something that helps advertisers and marketers feel better about themselves and what they do. It’s about the psychological wellbeing of marketers, not what motivates mainstream purchase decisions.

But our research shows that ad land has a poor understanding of the values and goals of the mainstream. So, when cognitive dissonance is combined with a lack of cultural competence, it’s clear that social virtue is an extremely hubristic and risky marketing strategy.  Every explicit statement about brand purpose is a hostage to fortune, just waiting to be falsified or outed by the public as yet another example of the hollow opportunism of brands and advertisers.   

And yet, brand purpose may have something going for it. Brand purpose communicates quality and reliability

The economist John Kay argues that many of our goals in life are achieved indirectly or obliquely.  In a seminal paper written with Jonathan Star and Evan Davis (latterly of Newsnight and LBC fame) called ‘Is Advertising Rational? he argued: “It is not so much the claims made by advertisers that are helpful, but the fact that they are willing to spend extravagant amounts of money.”

This taps into evolutionary psychology and the concept of costly signalling. Think of the peacock’s tail: it’s extravagant display shows it has resources to spare and signals quality and fitness to prospective mates.

The takeout for marketers is very straightforward - advertising is not about what you say but showing that you can afford to say it. And there is a growing academic literature that argues this is how corporate social responsibility programmes and brand purpose may work.  It’s less about an explicit (and falsifiable) message and more about what it obliquely signals about the stature and financial strength of your brand. From this, the audience infer product reliability and quality.

Note how this aligns with the top priorities in mainstream buying decisions we find in ‘The Aspiration Window’. But even if social virtue marketing can signal reliability and quality, in our polarised culture it still looks like an inefficient and risky strategy. The empathy and aspiration gap that persists between marketers and the mainstream means it’s too easy for brands to end up on the wrong side of the conversation.

Is it worth it? 

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