To say that COVID-19 disrupted pre-pandemic marketing plans is an understatement. Virtually every brand and business—regardless of size, product or industry sector—shelved existing campaigns and pivoted toward messaging better suited to a nation in crisis.
More than a year later, research finds that there’s at least one striking shift likely to carry over into the new normal: Consumers are demanding that brands be transparent about their positions on the issues that matter most—and most importantly, that they act on those positions, favoring meaningful support over marketing messages.
Indeed, “The Rise in Brand Purpose,” a fall 2020 Dotdash Meredith Corporation study, found that 90% of Dotdash Meredith women surveyed will “frequently buy” from purpose-driven brands; 80% are willing to “pay a little more” for a product if it is made by a company that gives back; and 70% will “champion those brands,” spreading the word about companies that do good.
Pre-pandemic, if marketers were told a single strategy had the power to promote customer loyalty, price flexibility, and brand advocacy, there would be a rush to deploy it. To understand why some businesses have held back, consider that since the dawn of marketing as a practice, it was generally agreed that brands should steer clear of polarizing issues—i.e., not necessarily be transparent—so as to avoid alienating half of all consumers. And those old habits, understandably, die hard.
“I think many marketers used to feel it was OK for them to opt-out of difficult conversations around societal values, social and economic injustices, and the like. Today, our advice is it’s not OK for marketers to stand on the sidelines, as people expect brands to be part of the conversation on these subjects, for them to express their opinions and ultimately stand up for what they believe is right,” says Robin Riddle, Foundry 360’s VP of Content Strategy and Account Management. “The challenge for many brands is figuring out how to do that in a way that is authentic to the situation and fits within their brand voice.”
Riddle also notes that the trend toward expressing “brand purpose” is especially urgent for campaigns targeting the rising generation of consumers. According to Dotdash Meredith’s Data Studio, a full 72% of U.S. Gen Zers “want to know where companies and brands stand on issues of racial justice,” for example. Here are three more guidelines to consider when taking a stand.
1. Start at the top: Why C-Suite buy-in is imperative
Marc Pritchard, the chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, has long deployed cause marketing across the P&G portfolio brands. Those efforts stepped up in 2020. For instance, early in the pandemic, the Fortune 50 company supported mask wearing and social distancing, most notably by teaming up with TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and her #DistanceDance campaign, resulting in millions of dollars being donated to Feeding America and Matthew 25.
With the summer of 2020’s rise of social unrest, P&G promoted its corporate “Take on Race” campaign. “Being white in America means not having to say your race matters,” a beautifully shot video states. “Not being racist is not enough. Now is the time to be anti-racist.”
Such unequivocal top-down direction gave individual P&G brands permission to advocate for causes that best align with their brand values. Per Pritchard, in an interview with WARC: “Consumers are now demanding to know what brands and companies stand for. [They] want to know what you’re doing beyond just making money. They want to know what you’re doing is good.”
2. Don’t be afraid to make—or join—a political statement
Before the 2020 elections, politics remained a “bridge too far”—a territory most brands strenuously avoided. That changed on January 6, 2021, when the outgoing administration fomented so much ill will about election results that an angry mob assaulted the U.S. Capitol.
That same day, the Business Roundtable, an organization of 181 CEOs, issued a statement denouncing the mob and its actions, exhorting “the President and all relevant officials to put an end to the chaos and to facilitate the peaceful transition of power.”
Just as quickly, individual CEOs stepped up with their own messages. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan deemed the events “appalling” and called on “all Americans to unite behind one of our most cherished principles: the peaceful transfer of power that has happened without interruption since our country’s founding.” The most plainspoken detractor may well have been Citi CEO Michael Corbat, who tweeted that he was “disgusted by the actions of those who have stormed the U.S. Capitol.”
3. Make sure your support is consistent—and authentic
Consumers are quick to question campaigns that are deployed to synch with a news cycle, only to mothball them for the rest of the year. A prime example is so-called rainbow washing, a term used to describe branded messaging around LGBTQ rights that is activated during Pride Month in June, then shuttered on July 1. According to YPulse, a firm specializing in Millennial and Gen Z research, there’s also a more general trend toward “virtue signaling,” which is as it sounds—all the right signals, very little action.
In June, common signals are big-brand logos recast in all the colors of the rainbow and, often, ad and marketing campaigns featuring same-sex couples. Jenn Grace, an LGBTQ business strategist, warns against backlash from both sides—from LGBTQ detractors, of course, but also from members within the LGBTQ community. She counsels companies to look internally first.
“If a company that notoriously has terrible discriminatory policies and practices toward the community and no benefits and tries to advertise or get involved in any way, they are going to be met with skepticism until they prove otherwise,” Grace told ChiefMarketer.com. “Unless you’re getting yourself together on the back end, all of the money in the world you spend on advertising is completely wasted.”
Insights from the Dotdash Meredith Data Studio align with Grace’s call for authentic support. A full 96% of all Dotdash Meredith women “respect companies/brands who consistently support a cause or issue that they believe in.” Likewise, two-thirds of respondents believe that “how a brand supports a cause” is more important to them than which cause they choose.
“The Rise in Brand Purpose,” Dotdash Meredith Corporation study, 2020
 P&G, Fortune 50
 WARC interview
 Business Roundtable Statement
 CEO reactions
 Virtue signaling
 Jenn Grace
 “The Rise in Brand Purpose,” Meredith Corporation study, 2020