As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

by | Jun 23, 2020 | Covid-19, Public Relations

Brands are already under the microscope for their handling of COVID-crisis actions and responses, but as social justice issues enter the spotlight, the heat is on for businesses to get on the right side of the issue—and not just with words and messaging, but with meaningful and respectful actions. In other words, now’s the time for brands to stand by their purpose-driven initiatives.

A new report from PR, branding and digital marketing firm Purpose Brand sheds light on the cultural shift to purpose, the conflict between purpose and profit, and the implications for business leaders. Thenewly-released Purpose Report 2020: The Move from Brand Positioning to Purpose Positioning gives business and marketing executives tools to speak with authenticity on race relations, COVID-19 and other pressing issues that activate deeply held personal values.

“For marketers, the implications are enormous,” said Purpose Brand CEO Diane Primo, the report’s author, in a news release. “A brand can define how it wants to be positioned in the marketplace by not only its value proposition, but also the values behind it. The findings in this report suggest that a purpose-engaged company must adapt to cultural value shifts quickly and with intent. The public focus on race and COVID-19 demonstrates this.”

As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

An extensive survey of consumer attitudes toward corporate purpose, the report sets the agenda for a decade of change in brand marketing and business operations. The 2010s produced a corporate debate about purpose—connecting brands with lofty social ideals. The new decade will be about purpose positioning—creating the informed businesses models that can truly change society.

As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

In a nationwide survey conducted for the report, more consumers found meaning in purpose-driven issues like civic engagement, the environment, giving back and social justice than in fashion, pro sports, technology and other lifestyle interests. Views on a range of interests vary widely across gender, generation, ethnicity, political affiliation and location. By analyzing each segment, The Purpose Report 2020 reveals causes and values that resonate universally and, notably, those that can appeal to targeted groups.

Among the key insights:

Purpose is at the center of culture

Purpose has achieved cultural rock-star status, bigger than video games, technology and professional sports. When asked about hobbies and interests, consumers say they care about and find meaning in environmental causes (64 percent), civic engagement (62 percent), philanthropy, giving back and volunteering (61 percent) and social justice causes (61 percent). These concerns were judged more meaningful than outdoor activities (59 percent), athletics/health & fitness (57 percent), technology (52 percent), professional and semi-pro sports (47 percent), computer/video games (47 percent) and fashion (42 percent).

Concerns and their intensity were more fully revealed in demographic breakdowns. More than other age groups, Generation Z finds meaning in health, outdoor activities, social justice and the environment. Gen Z may view health as both a lifestyle and a social issue, given that 84 percent of Gen Z respondents selected mental health as a cause they care about.

As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

Purpose creates employee activists

Employees are not afraid to take a company to task publicly if their values are not aligned. Over 74 percent agree that as employees, they have a right to stand up to employers who defy their personal principles. This belief is widely held among millennials (82 percent), Hispanics (79 percent), blacks (79 percent) and Democrats (79 percent). “This is essential for companies to remember as they activate emergency plans around race relations and COVID-19,” Primo said. “This is their opportunity to build loyalty with a generation that is difficult to persuade.”

Equal rights is a universally shared value

Power, opportunity and risk are at the center of messaging across demographic lines. Consumers widely share the values of equal rights, access to basic services, sustainability and job growth. But their level of commitment often is bound by gender, age, race and ethnicity, or political affiliation.

The top causes for men were domestic job growth, fair and free elections, and access to clean water. Among women, top concerns were women’s health, equal rights and domestic violence. Blacks most often chose racial rights, equal rights and domestic violence, while Hispanics named equal rights, affordable housing and climate change.

Direct action and consistent representation signify purpose

For every group surveyed, cash donations were cited as the top indicator of a brand’s greater social purpose. Direct action is widely seen as more substantive than words. Only 23 percent acknowledged the corporate social responsibility report as a way that brands and companies show a purpose beyond making money, compared with cash donations (61 percent), direct aid (53 percent), events or campaigns (39 percent), website content (39 percent), ads (38 percent), leaders’ statements (37 percent) and news coverage (37 percent).

Which of the following are ways that let you know brands and companies have a purpose beyond making money?

As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

Tech company collaboration demanded

For every group surveyed, 80 percent or more thought social media companies needed to collaborate to create change around data privacy. This may emerge as a concern in COVID-19 contact tracing. CEOs of social media companies have twice the perceived power of CEOs in non-tech companies to address issues their customers care about. The CEO’s voice during racial unrest will likely be defining. Missteps may harm CEOs’ personal reputations as well as those of their companies.

Social media sounds the alarm

Two in 3 (67 percent) say it is important to let others know through social media when a company/organization does not adhere to the principles they care about, with Gen Z (76 percent), Hispanics (76 percent) and Democrats (74 percent) in high agreement.

Consumers are disenfranchised, but steadfast in their beliefs

The power needed to take effective action often transcends the power of the individual. While 89 percent said they’re willing to support an issue regardless of what others do, 40 percent say any action they take as individuals will not make a difference. However, the individual will stand up.

As demands to address race relations mount, brand purpose matters more than ever

“Expectations have evolved, and corporations and brands need to evolve to meet them,” Primo said. “The report provides a systematic framework for authentically building and sustaining corporate purpose, well beyond functional marketing. It provides a practical construct on proactively anticipating and responding to cultural turbulence.”

Download the full report here.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter