• Transform magazine
  • February 04, 2023

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Acting up or barely acting?

Graham L&F Background Blue

Graham Sykes is the executive creative director at Landor & Fitch. He argues here that the days of brand tokenism are over, and that brands must step up and create genuine, positive change now.

The world is facing serious problems. War. Famine. Climate change. The list goes on. And these issues aren’t going away. It’s no longer ok for brands to turn a blind eye or to tell a good story without any substance. Brands need to step up, take their role as changemakers seriously and move from storytelling to story-doing. 

In for the long haul 

The days of jumping on the bandwagon with tokenistic activities are officially over. Consumers want long-term and enduring purpose-driven action from brands. Those that do so effectively will build resilience and drive success long-term. 

Dove’s Self Esteem Project has been constantly evolving since 2004 to address new issues within this space. Over 40 million people have now taken part in Dove’s educational programmes promoting body confidence and self-esteem and setting a benchmark for diversity and inclusivity in the category.

Patagonia has openly admitted that it is ‘part of the problem,’ however, the brand also demonstrates total commitment to its purpose to do good. Founder Yvon Chouinard recently announced that he has given the company away to a charitable trust. This radical move allows him to retain control of the business, whilst donating $100m a year to fight climate change. This act sets an exciting, if difficult to follow, new precedent for businesses and brands, especially for those who have been talking the talk on climate action.

Lego has been working towards moving away from its traditional plastic brick to an eco-alternative since 2015. It has been investing heavily in its Sustainable Materials Centre to innovate in this area, revealing the first recycled plastic prototype in June last year. Vice President of Environmental Responsibility at Lego, Tim Brooks, said, “Experimentation and failing is an important part of learning and innovation. Just as kids build, unbuild and rebuild with Lego bricks at home, we’re doing the same in our lab.” The journey towards more sustainable products takes time but setting out on that journey is what is critical. 

Whilst it is crucial for brands to pull their weight when it comes to societal and environmental issues, it can’t be a case of flavour of the week. The actions need to demonstrate a sustained commitment to the matter in question and must be guided by their own unique brand purpose. 

React with integrity

There should always be an authentic relationship between the brand offering and the impact to create genuine traction. We saw this with Ikea’s Trash Collection, wherein the brand faced up to its environmental responsibilities and repurposed unwanted furniture for more environmentally minded shoppers. This is one of several initiatives Ikea is doing to help discourage today’s throwaway culture, it also now offers a buy-back option for unwanted furniture as well as a free spare parts service to extend the lifespan of products.

Of course, there are instances when brands need to react more spontaneously, but even then, it is essential to play in the realms of the offer. Heineken’s ‘Unwasted Beer’ initiative during the Covid-19 pub closures is a good example of this. With 10% of global greenhouse emissions coming from food and drink waste, Heineken Ireland was faced with the challenge of what to do with 19 million pints. Heineken reversed its business model to produce biogas – enough to power 100,000 homes.

Regardless of the circumstance, the decision on whether a certain action is the right thing to do should always be looked at through the lens of brand to ensure relevance, distinction, and alignment with its audiences’ values. 

Inspire, engage and activate 

Your brand must build experiences that consumers can be a part of, and in turn become memorable for actions. Back Market’s ‘Hack Market,’ for example, aimed to target Apple Store customers and get them to reconsider their purchase and opt for a second-hand model instead. Using the Apple Airdrop function, Back Market shared messages prompting consumer action, such as ‘The iPhone you love without the carbon footprint you hate. Switch to refurbished’. 

Simply having a dialogue with consumers isn’t enough, audiences must be inspired to act. Brands need to strive to build relationships where they stand shoulder to shoulder together. To create these lasting relationships, you need to be responsive, collaborative and emotionally intelligent. This can be challenging to activate but when done well this is hugely powerful. Your consumers become your allies and your advocates, inspiring positive activism and lasting change. 

Act now 

What a brand looks like is going to matter far less. What will be far more instrumental is what the brand stands for and what it achieves with its community. Stories are not enough. The impact your brand has must be at scale, but it also needs to ladder up seamlessly to your brand purpose. Your brand being experienced is essential to inspire, engage and activate real change. Commit to the cause. And start now.