It’s hard to argue against the notion that we’re living in a broken world in 2021—and for brands and businesses that are wondering who bears the onus of fixing it, you need look no further than new research from comms leaders at WE Communications, which exposes escalating tension between expectations for brands to drive stability in a fast-changing, fractured world and heightened skepticism about purpose-washing.
The firm’s latest Brands in Motion report, “The Bravery Mandate,” conducted by WE and YouGov, reveals that the number of global study respondents say they expect brands to create stability in uncertain times rose 30 percent since 2019—with brands now viewed as important a pillar of society as educators and friend-and-family networks.
Yet despite those rising expectations, brands’ perceived impact for societal good remains flat, with 52 percent saying that attempts to impact societal issues are anchored in trying to sell more products or services. This contradiction puts brands in a tenuous position—one where they are expected to speak out, but their intentions will be continuously questioned.
“We’ve reached an inflection point where people are craving businesses to fill the leadership void,” said Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO of WE Communications, in a news release. “To be the driving force of positive societal impact, brands should ask themselves, ‘If not us, who?’ and take bold, brave action.”
Consumers and B2B decision-makers are voting with their wallets to measure brand support. Two out of three respondents say they are more likely to purchase or recommend products or services from brands that address societal issues that matter to them.
“Purpose is now mandatory, impacting immediate commercial outcomes as well as a brand’s long-term legacy,” Zorkin said. “Purpose determines not just which brands stay viable in the next few years but which will endure for years to come.”
Over the past five years, Brands in Motion global studies have surveyed more than 90,000 consumers and B2B decision-makers worldwide to understand the impact of how perceptions shift over time.
This year’s study uncovered two main themes:
A divided audience
Although two-thirds of survey respondents are open to brands speaking and acting on societal issues, one third are not. Navigating this divide requires active engagement with key stakeholders, including employees, shareholders, customers and community members, to illuminate long-term goals and values.
With limitless options, consumers are more empowered than ever to make demands of brands about issues they care most about, from income and education inequalities to human rights and climate change. Eighty-three percent of consumers say brands should listen to stakeholders to decide what issues or impacts to address, and 90 percent of consumers say brands should be clear on what they stand for.
“We are communicating to a sophisticated audience—one with unprecedented levels of information and data at their fingertips,” Zorkin said. “Any action a brand takes must be real—concrete and measurable—because there is no more room for compromise or hedging.”
It’s a marathon and a sprint
The report dug into expectations when it comes to defining and demonstrating brand purpose. It’s clear that expectations are high and at times nuanced—taking a stance on social issues requires agility and long-term commitment.
Stakeholders want frequent communication, with 58 percent saying brands must act or communicate at least weekly on topics of importance to be a leading voice, supported by sustained action. Seventy-two percent of consumers prefer that brands make multiyear investments in one issue rather than invest in a new cause every year.
Staying quiet and checking boxes, though, will not serve brands. Globally, 75 percent of respondents say brands should reassess policies and communications in light of societal issues at least every six months, and half said at least every three months.
“A brand’s purpose platform must be consistent enough to ground it, flexible enough to evolve with the times, and clear enough to navigate the inevitable unknowns,” Zorkin said. “It’s time for brands to fear less and do more.”
The WE Brands in Motion report is a worldwide study of how perceptions shift over time. Now in its fifth year, Brands in Motion has surveyed 90,000+ consumers and B2B decision-makers about their attitudes regarding:
- Expectations for brand actions and investments
- Forces affecting the market on a macro level
- Expectations for purpose initiatives