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Covid-19 Chaos Or Not, Consumers Want Brands to Have Purpose

Even in the grips of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, consumers are craving a more sustainable stance from the brands they patronize, new research claims.

Which means coronavirus chaos or not, businesses can scarcely afford to leave brand purpose “gathering dust,” according to Brandwatch, a digital consumer intelligence firm in England.

In a recent survey of 7,000 adults across Australia, France, Mexico, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, Brandwatch found that 57 percent of respondents want businesses to focus on sustainability and the environment more in 2021, “perhaps in acknowledgement of how sustainable initiatives were not the key priority early in 2020,” it said.

Profit is increasingly becoming a dirty word, too. An analysis of social-media mentions of terms such as “profit,” “profits” and “profited” between July 2019 and July 2020 showed a 14 percent uptick in negative connotations and a 5 percent decrease in positive associations from the year before.

“Profit may be a positive word for business leaders, but among consumers it has increasingly negative connotations,” Brandwatch said. “Of course, the pursuit of purpose doesn’t mean abandoning the pursuit for profit. In fact, acting with purpose can result in more profit.”

Indeed, consumers are “actively hunting” for brands that work toward goals not necessarily linked to profit, the firm noted. With Google search interest for both “ethical brands” and “sustainable brands” spiking tenfold between 2016 and 2020, “being associated with favorable qualities is a good way to attract the purpose-conscious consumer,” Brandwatch said.

But consumers won’t be spoonfed any corporate pablum; today’s savvier breed of shopper wants brands to “walk the talk.” Fifty-five percent of those polled, Brandwatch found, said it’s “very important” that a business operates according to its values and principles, compared with the less than 5 percent who don’t think it’s important at all. Similar numbers also wanted companies to proactively make the world a better place, provide clear statements outlining their values and purpose, set examples for other businesses and demonstrate commitment to altruistic causes.

“[Our] data shows that consumers strongly believe that a brand should operate according to its values and proactively make the world a better place,” Brandwatch said. “They’re far less concerned about more performative actions around those values, like getting press coverage or sharing statements about purpose.”

For consumers, it added, “actions speak louder than words,” and brand loyalty in 2020 is far more nebulous than it used to be as consumer needs have shifted to more fundamental concerns such as family health, personal wellbeing, food and shelter and financial security. In other words, consumers desire less virtue signaling from brands and more concrete actions.

One sterling example of a brand putting work into purpose-driven initiatives, Brandwatch said, is Adidas. When the sportswear giant launched its #ChangeIsATeamSport campaign in January, with the goal of inspiring positive change in local communities, it amassed a flurry of Twitter mentions boosted, in part, by star power from celebrities such as K-pop girl group Blackpink.

Reception was “incredibly positive,” Brandwatch said, describing more than 90 percent of #ChangeIsATeamSport tweets as “joyful.” Adidas didn’t hide the fact that it wanted to sell sneakers—the campaign also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Superstar shoe—but its call to action and full-throated promotion of mission-based team projects like Skateism and Curated by Girls generated a halo effect that demonstrated that profit didn’t have to be at odds with purpose.

Even cash-strapped consumers, facing one of the deepest recessions in history, recognize the value of businesses promoting the betterment of people and planet. In its survey, Brandwatch found that, “surprisingly,” employee well-being, sustainability and helping the most vulnerable emerged ahead of “keeping prices as low as possible.”

There were regional differences, of course. In the United States, “keeps prices as low as possible” was the second-most-popular answer, and in the United Kingdom, “is anti-racist” nabbed the third-most tallies.

That said, all of the options Brandwatch gave—including “has an ethical supply chain,” “sources workers, materials and products locally,” “provides customers with what they want when they want it” and “donates money to good causes” and barring “none of the above”—scored at least 30 percent of global consumers’ support.

“This is a tall order,” Brandwatch said. “To achieve all of these would be a commendable feat—but it also shows that consumer expectations are high.”

Another 26 percent of consumers globally—37 percent in the United States—want businesses to continue to back the Black Lives Matter movement. Interest in diversity and inclusion, in terms of social-media mentions, is also the highest it’s been in years, particularly over the past several months, the firm found.

“All of this adds up to one important point: Consumers care about the action businesses take and are vocal in what they want and need,” Brandwatch said. “To get through 2020 and thrive beyond it, businesses must listen.”

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