The psychology of purpose, profit & politics
A behavioural lens offers strategic understanding of the bumps that brand purpose is facing
‘Brand purpose’, the notion that there is a purpose beyond the reason a business exists beyond making a profit, has far reaching implications for businesses by reflecting its values, aiming to have an impact on society, and to contribute to the betterment of the world. Most brands now have a purpose agenda aiming to make change across a wide range of issues that includes public health, environmental sustainability, education, gender and sexual equality – there is no shortage to the ways in which businesses aim for a positive impact on people, society and the planet.
Not only is this a moral cause but brand purpose is considered a critical commercial consideration for businesses to get right. In a recent poll of consumers globally, 62% want companies to take a stand on issues such as sustainability, transparency, and fair employment practices. Brands that fail to do have to suffer the commercial costs with 47% saying they would be less likely to place their business there, and 17% not coming back.
But more recently there have recently been dissenting views expressed on brand purpose. Unilever CEO Heinz Schumacher suggested it was becoming an 'unwelcome distraction' and impacting business results. He said that the company has been guilty of “force-fitting purpose in every brand”. And some politicians go much further with, for example, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, suggesting purpose (specifically that which is centred around Environment, Social and Governance concerns) poses the “single greatest threat” to capitalism and democracy. Elon Musk suspects a conspiracy “weaponized by phony social justice warriors” to bring harm upon free-market practices.
So just where are with this tricky topic and what, if anything, does behaviour science have to offer businesses seeking to navigate the complexity of politics, money making and social good?
The role of purpose
To understand what ‘purpose’ is and how it arises, we need to trace its roots back to the mid-20th century, where the ‘60’s and 70’s saw increasing concerns about environmental issues being reflected in the positions adopted by companies. Alongside this there was a steady increase in government regulations for both environmental and consumer protections, forcing companies to be more accountable for their actions. Social justice movements also started to find their way into corporate policies, with brands starting to address issues of diversity and workplace equality.
Initially the corporate response was called Corporate Social Responsibility – reflecting the way in which businesses would take a philanthropic approach to these issues, supporting in a well-meaning but often limited way. While at the outset it was considered that the halo effect of good deeds were also good for business, it was only later in the ‘80’s and 90’s that there was a shift towards aligning CSR with business objectives – and was seen to more fundamentally drive business success.
The notion of brand purpose emerged in the 2000s, going beyond CSR by more thoroughly embedding a sense of purpose or a social mission into the core identity and function of a brand. This meant the marketing orientation, product proposition and other aspects such as supply chain are structured around the brand purpose objectives.
The purpose mandate
The commercial and reputational successes of brand purpose have inspired many organisations to pursue a purposeful strategy. And not unreasonably, given the expectations placed on businesses: a recent Ipsos poll in the UK found that 50% agree, versus 18% who disagree, that “business leaders have a responsibility to speak out on social and political issues affecting my country.”
Ipsos polling in the US also found that the wider population consider brands often have as much responsibility as government to prove solutions to issues as diverse as poverty and social inequality, climate change, treating men and women equally and protecting religious freedoms.
And Ipsos’ Reputation Council members, made up of global communications leaders, also recognise a clear role for business in addressing political issues. 63% say business leaders are overtaking politicians as a force for progressive change in the world – up from 57% in 2019. But at the same time, 72% of them agree that too many organisations use the language of social purpose without committing to real change. Indeed, there have been accusations of ‘woke washing’ and in the UK there is a CMA investigation underway to assess the degree to which brands are guilty of making environmental claims that do not hold up under scrutiny. In other words, people expect businesses to ‘do the right thing’ and will seek to punish them if they fail to live up to the standard.
One of the challenges for brands is the dual motivates that are at play – on the one hand there is a mandate to make money, on the other there is the desire and requirement to engage in a wider purposeful agenda. Whilst these are not necessarily mutually exclusive (and most brand purpose narratives suggest they are not), the nature of the power imbalance between consumers and businesses would suggest we are then vulnerable to paranoid cognition where we can distrust companies’ motivations despite their best efforts to persuade us otherwise.
This is what makes ‘authenticity’ critical to overcoming consumer scepticism. Consumers may question the true motivation of purpose objective and accuse businesses of inauthenticity, believing their involvement in social issues is mainly a marketing ploy to sell more products.
To address this, one way in which brands can communicate their authenticity is through sacrifice – and a key means to do this is to demonstrate a willingness to support a cause and its target audience in particular even if this involves a risk to revenues. One such example of a brand that did this is the razor brand Gillette. They used a purpose campaign to fight against the widespread stereotype of “toxic masculinity.” They challenged sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, bullying, and abusive behaviour, calling for men to hold themselves and others accountable for their actions. The film went viral on YouTube and generated both praise but also, importantly for our analysis, criticism. Indeed, the ad received almost 250,000 dislikes on YouTube and the brand faced backlash from thousands of men’s right activists across social media who vowed to the hashtag #BoycottGillette.
The impact on sales of these sorts of stands which can alienate some of the population is generally not known but nevertheless the signalling of the willingness to support a progressive position in the face of opposition suggests a ‘trustworthiness’ on the part of the company. In a marketing led world where it can be hard to unpick reality from spin, then this sort of signalling likely has real psychological cut through.
Managing the divide
The values expressed in a purpose campaign tend to align with progressive values, so it is of little surprise that those to the political right are less enthusiastic of these efforts. In fact, there have been attempts to organise boycotts of some brands on this basis, particularly in the US with the rallying cry of ‘go woke, go broke’. There is little evidence, however, if any, that these have to date had a great deal of impact.
But if we consider that we live in an era where the values we hold will be ever more important across walks of our life, then as psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims, it makes sense to better understand what he calls the Moral Foundations of our choices and leanings. We can see how can see how the different moral values he identified, likely align with consumer preferences for certain brands:
Care/Harm: Consumers who prioritize care/harm may well be drawn to brands that demonstrate ethical and compassionate practices. An example is The Body Shop attracts with its commitment to cruelty-free and ethical products, highlighting a dedication to care for both animals and the environment.
Fairness/Cheating: Those valuing fairness are attracted to brands that emphasize equitable and transparent practices. Ben & Jerry's, with its focus on social justice and equity, may well resonate with these consumers.
Loyalty/Betrayal: People who value loyalty show a preference for brands that embody patriotism or community support. Iconic American brands like Ford and Levi's tap into this sentiment with their long-standing national heritage.
Authority/Subversion: People who respect authority tend to favour established brands with a legacy. Rolex and Mercedes-Benz are prime examples, as they are not only established but also often endorsed by figures of authority.
Sanctity/Degradation: Those sensitive to sanctity/degradation are drawn to brands that align with moral or religious beliefs, or that are perceived as pure and wholesome. Aveeno attracts consumers who value sanctity and purity in products, thanks to its emphasis on natural ingredients.
Whilst in many ways versions of these could appear relatively uncontroversial for many people, they could also quickly become problematic. Already, recent Ipsos polling in the US suggests very different opinions by political voting behaviour concerning a purposeful business agenda, as shown below.
If we follow Haidt, then we can also see that we might move to a more nuanced position where there are not only challenges of whether businesses should have a purposeful position the different moral foundations that are reflected in the purpose activities could be more closely scrutinised. Haidt suggests that the differing Moral Foundations held by opposing political parties helps to explain political polarisation, with each side struggling to understand how the other could prioritize such different values, resulting in an "us versus them" mentality.
This might seem a stretch but we can see other examples of issues where historically broad consensus quickly leading to polarised postions, as is the case with the recent controversy concerning the increase in the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in London to tackle air pollution. Discontent over the financial costs of this have morphed into a party-political debate due, some commentators suggest, to the electoral uplift that can be gained from activating the very different values underpinning either side of the debate.
Trying to dodge the debate is something that may be hard to do - people are increasingly alert to the ‘greenhushing’ trend, where companies keep quite about their sustainability achievements in an attempt to avoid some kind of backlash. It seems increasingly likely that it is hard for businesses to avoid taking, or being placed in, a political position.
The brand purpose agenda is one where there has to date been a broad underpinning of support from different groups of the population and whilst we expect this to continue, by adopting a behavioural lens we can see that the landscape may well get more complex. Mapping this out will require using behavioural theories and frameworks covering fakes and authenticity, trustworthiness, and moral psychology.
It is also worth a few final reflections on the wider set of challenges that could be made of the brand purpose agenda using the lens of the ‘Frankfurt school’ a philosophical movement that offered a critical perspective on how mass-produced culture influences society.
Applied to brand purpose, critics from this perspective could suggest that while the brand purpose activities might appear diverse, in fact they represent a narrow view of the political spectrum of ideas and debate and ultimately leads to a form of passive ‘clicktivism’ and a decline in critical thinking. The poster child for this is the Pepsi and the Kendall Jenner where the model, in a protest setting, hands a Pepsi can to a police officer seemingly resolving the conflict. There was a great deal of criticism that this trivialized and commodified the serious issues surrounding police brutality and protest movements like Black Lives Matter.
With this in mind, we may see more pressure for more overtly political positions being adopted by businesses, rather than side-stepping this by talking about values. One example is Ben & Jerry's involvement in social justice initiatives, particularly their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. They provide detailed educational content on systemic racism, voting rights, and criminal justice reform. Additionally, they have taken concrete steps, including supporting relevant legislation and community projects, which demonstrates a genuine commitment to social change.
We may be on the cusp of an era where brands will need to not only be engaging behavioural science to unpack their purpose landscape, but also political scientists to examine the wide political considerations and implications.
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