When it comes to social purpose, brands must prove they're for real

Consumers increasingly expect brands to make a positive difference in the world, so they must be sophisticated in communicating their credentials, writes B&B studio's strategy director.

Consumers are crying out for brands on a mission – with 49% of people (and 60% of 18-24 year olds) suggesting they’d pay more for brands that support causes that are important to them, according to a report this year from MediaCom.

But where there are opportunities, there are opportunists. Companies of all sizes are now jumping on the ethical bandwagon, aligning themselves to the latest global cause and exerting minimum effort for maximum commercial gain.

As a result, brands with a genuine social mission now need to go the extra mile to communicate their authenticity. So, how can they do this?

Turn up the volume

Brands on a mission work best when the product is part of the solution, with a direct impact on the environmental or social problem. Take Snact as an example. If there wasn’t a global issue of fresh food wastage the company simply wouldn’t exist.

The Snact team rescues unused or unwanted food and transforms it into a range of healthy and delicious snacks, including fruit jerkies and banana bars.

With 4.4 million apples and 1.4 million bananas thrown away in the UK alone every day, according to food waste campaign group WRAP – usually because they are an unusual or ‘ugly’ shape – there’s a phenomenal amount of perfectly good food going to waste, at a huge cost to the environment.

But whilst people like to see – and support – reductions in food waste, actually investing in and consuming ‘waste’ isn’t particularly appealing.

So, we worked with Snact on a new brand identity that simultaneously reinforces its mission to rescue discarded fruit whilst asserting the taste value of the product itself.

By using playful language to turn up the volume on its activist messaging and a clearer representation of the two driving forces behind the brand – delicious fruit snacks depicted with bold, vibrant fruits; and the protest element shown through witty, creative slogans – its #deliciousprotest is instantly understood.

Find purpose beyond product

For other brands, the mission may be conducted through a service outside its standard product range.

This autumn, the first students enrolled at the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, launched by James Dyson to bridge the UK skills gap in engineering. At the Institute, students undertake an engineering degree while learning on-the-job working full-time for Dyson.

While the initiative many not have a direct impact on sales of Dyson electronics, the brand has effectively positioned itself as a proactive force in preventing a core skills shortage in the UK, building trust and respect with existing and potential consumers.

Alongside moulding the next generation of leading engineers, Dyson has also been able to communicate its core messages to a much wider audience.

Perform beautifully

But no matter how great your messages are, it’s not enough just to be "worthy". Even a brand with the best intentions and strongest social or environmental impact will fail if their product doesn’t work properly or look good – just think of G-Wiz, the ultimate martyr car.

It’s a design agency’s role to find the right balance between communicating a brand’s mission, ensuring that the performance of the product is instantly apparent, and making the whole thing desirable.

Take Kit & Kin, a range of eco-friendly nappies with exceptional effectiveness.

There’s a common misconception that nappies that are good for the environment are bad at performing, so we created a modern identity that broke down these preconceptions and clearly demonstrated Kit & Kin’s premium performance with a sense of humour that appealed to a much broader market.

You can’t assume that a brand mission is the underlying reason that consumers choose one product over another. With Kit & Kin, the messages of performance, desirability and sustainability are equally weighted to engage with consumers on every level.

Make it official

We all know how savvy consumers can be, armed with instant access to a brand’s social or environmental impact via the Internet, and conscious that they can make a positive change by aligning with the most responsible brands.

And while a brand’s own messaging can go a long way to building trust with consumers, external verification is a great tool to put you ahead of the eco-competition.

The most recent guidelines for eco-minded consumers is B Corp, a relatively recent certification highlighting brands that have met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency – both in the product or service they provide, and internally in how they treat their staff.

Only 1,000 or so brands have achieved this so far – including the likes of Rebel Kitchen, Ben & Jerry’s and Lotus Foods – but we’re expecting a wave of announcements in the near future as companies look to differentiate themselves from the social competition.

Stay authentic

At the end of the day, the most effective brands will start from a place of genuine social action and keep this mission at the heart of the company as they grow and evolve.

There’s no shame in being a commercial brand: frankly, if a business isn’t commercially viable then it won’t be able to make a difference, so why be coy about it? But it’s important not to underestimate consumers.

While they may be willing to pay a premium for the feel-good factor that comes with an eco-friendly product, consumers remain sceptical and it’s a brand’s job to differentiate itself from competitors that are simply "brandstanding".

Lisa Desforges is strategy director at B&B studio

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