Brands must avoid taking a misstep by trying to be too earnest on social causes. Weigh the risk and reward of taking such a position - and do it only if it truly means something. Image Credit: Shutterstock

As we have been going through the pandemic, we have seen brands being tempted to play a more impactful role people’s lives.

Yet, at times, audiences are suspicious of the deeper intentions behind such actions. For instance, when an airline sent a note to a customer telling him “we’re in this together”, his response was a reminder of the time they overcharged him for extra luggage.

Such a cynical reaction was due to the knowledge that such a ‘good deed’ is not for the sake of being good. People realize that regardless of how humanely the brand is acting, it is not being this selfless for a greater good.

Which begs the question: How can a brand do good deeds without getting that cynical reaction? Well, it starts by acknowledging that your brand is indeed never going to heaven. So, it shouldn’t be doing good for the sake of it.

Let’s start where all this began - in 1886, in the US Supreme Court, a statement by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite led to corporations becoming legally considered as “persons”, having the same rights as human beings. The major consequence of which is the unfortunate reality that, even if these corporations are treated as persons legally, they are still never going to hell – meaning that they can conduct their business with a clear conscious as far as they are legally covered.

Read More

Creating the 'brand' myth

Now, even though they are legally protected as “persons”, corporations can only succeed if they manage to get customers to somehow trust them and pay the full price for what they have on offer. This was only achieved by, once again, convincing audiences to see them as persons, yet, not from a legal perspective.

This humanization of the corporation is what we call ‘The Brand’. With time, audiences became more empowered, giving rise to the entitled consumer. Consumers expect these brands to go beyond introducing products; they expect them to take on an active role in their lives. In comes the Brand Purpose.

Extracting a payback

With preoccupied consumers impulsively choosing to opt-out of anything, brands need to justify their existence, as such a brand purpose is built on a specific point of view about the world we live in. It has beliefs, attitudes and, most importantly, a mission.

Research shows that 63 per cent of consumers prefer to do business with brands that share their personal beliefs. This concept about brand building has been immensely misunderstood.

A higher purpose

We see businesses confusing it with the idea of brands being selfless and charitable. First and foremost, a brand purpose is set to help the business. Brands need to realize the difference between CSR activities and/or brand building activities and charity.

Brand building should always make business sense. It should be within the intersection of the inside-out (how the business is affecting the society) and the outside-in (how the society is affecting the business). So, if you are a telecom operator in a country with an agenda to nationalize the workforce (the outside-in) and your brand purpose is about helping people realize their dreams (the inside-out), then it only makes sense that your brand building activities be around upskilling the workforce, regardless of how tempting it may be to initiate an effort to help people lose weight.

Blending in

If we go back to the pandemic, we realize that not every business is a natural fit to directly support people. However, they may still be able to do something if they clearly understand their purpose, and how they can authentically be helpful. If Apple’s purpose is around creativity, then they showed how 'creativity goes on', and Ikea’s purpose is around a better everyday life and has therefore been helping people reconnect with their homes.

Again, brands do not go to heaven. They help uninformed consumers see the human side of a business and help the business build a human relationship with its consumers.

I’m not preaching against brands doing good deeds. However, brands need to stay true to their essence and purposefully cater to the needs of their audiences. Brand building activities need to build the relevant equity.

The initiatives to bring a brand purpose to life are long-term commitments that should lead to actual positive change. They can neither be a gimmick to pretentiously be part of a popular conversation, nor an opportunity to win some creative award.