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Should brands be solving society’s problems?

by Patrick Meade, CEO

Yes.  

And.

No.

Let me explain. Firstly, I think brands and businesses need to be seen as separate entities for the purpose of this debate. The brand is what the consumer sees, hears, experiences, feels etc. The business is the organisation behind that. The employer. The legal and financial institution.

Why the distinction?

Because there are societal issues that every business has a role in helping solve. Afterall, a business is simply a collection of people orientated towards a common goal. And when you have a group of people you have social problems. Problems like Diversity, Equality and Sustainability, for example.

I don’t think any business should be allowed to ignore these. These issues are central to the lives and futures of the people that work in those organisations.

Every business needs to accept differences and welcome them. Every business needs to give everyone in it equal opportunity regardless of those differences. And every business needs to carry out its enterprise in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the world around them and the people it serves.  

Clear as glacial water.

We’re a long way from this being the case. But there are societal issues that are also core business issues. And owners and managers of businesses the world over should have plans to address them. Not policies. Plans.

But what about the other issues? The ones that dramatically affect societies but aren’t central to how we run our businesses?

Homelessness? Addiction? Poverty? Domestic violence?

What about global pandemics?

More and more this is where we are starting to see brands play a role. Or try to.

We’re now entering the muddier water.

The risk here is that, in my view, these issues should be solved by governments. Elected officials. Whose job it is to provide for the well-being of its citizens.

Once again, we’re a very long way from this actually being the case. In fact, the last few years has shown how inept some of the world’s ‘greatest’ countries are at protecting the well-being of its citizens.

This leaves a gap. Between what should be happening and what is happening.

Where there’s a gap, there’s an opportunity. And brands, brand owners and marketers are trained to exploit such opportunities. We’ve all seen the research. Countless studies telling us how important it is for brands to share the values of their consumers. In fact, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer report this year 80% of consumers actively want brands to solve societies problems.

And why wouldn’t they. The trust Nike’s customers have in the brand might make Nike better placed to tackle racism than Donal Trump. Also, given the brands purpose – ‘to motivate every athlete in the world’, empowering ‘everybody’ inherently gives them permission to tackle issues such as racial equality and diversity. It’s aligned to the brands role in our lives.

But, while Nike might have an authentic voice with a massive audience, is the marketing department really trying to solve the problem or is it using the problem to market the brand. It certainly didn’t hurt their bottom line.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with them doing both. But if it’s only the latter then we have the issue at hand. Governments should be solving societal problems for the good of the people. Brands predominantly solve problems for the good of market share.

There are some brilliant examples of a brand doing both. Dove’s famous ‘Real Beauty’ campaign not only promoted better self-esteem it also ran the Self-esteem Project which ran workshops that reached over 40,000 school kids in a single year. Impressive.

But there seem to be many more examples of brands just using a social issue to gain PR. Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner FACEPALM stands out so clearly because the brand had no history of social awareness to that point and therefore lacks credibility and authenticity in the space. This doesn’t even cover the ham-fisted creative approach to the problem.  

Or take the fact that State Street’s ‘Fearless Girl’, the famous bronze statue staring down the Wall St Bull in a symbol of female empowerment (and a big winner in every awards show the year it was revealed) was paid for by a business who settled multiple lawsuits for gender and racial pay inequality. Not a good look.

I’m really not sure if brand approach is right or wrong. I do know that I think there will be even more of it to come. As societies we are more aware of the issues we face. Social media and an ‘always on’ stream of information is uncovering and highlighting them for us. This can only be a positive. But is looking to brands, obsessed with short term gain, the right solution to long term problems?