Has the Branding Industry’s Obsession with Purpose Made Consumers Complacent?

Today’s consumers expect brands to have a sustainable, charitable or social message and to be purposeful in their product, positioning and communications.

Of course, this is no bad thing. Consider Nike championing equality and questioning stereotypes through its connections with Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams, or Unilever’s commitment to championing its own ‘Sustainable Living’ brands. Modern brands have made it easy enough to choose a product that reflects our social and environmental values over a similar one that doesn’t. But how many consumers are willing to go the extra mile – to embrace a truly sustainable solution that may be less convenient, or potentially reconsider consuming altogether?

We can’t always have it all

This is a problem. The concept of brand purpose is now so diluted that people have become complacent. It is simply a tool to placate the conscience of consumers by convincing them that they can have it all.

In 2011, when Patagonia asked us not to buy this jacket, it seemed to herald a new era of consumerism that encouraged us to reduce, repair and reuse.

But eight years on, with a climate in crisis, how many brands have attempted to shift to a business model that enables reduced consumption? How many are really urging consumers to do their bit through new products that empower this?

The opportunity for brands today is to be a change-maker – to innovate for new, more sustainable consumer behaviours and to make them desirable and aspirational. Change is tough, but it’s better than extinction.

The opportunity for brands today is to be a change-maker – to innovate for new, more sustainable consumer behaviours and to make them desirable and aspirational. Change is tough, but it’s better than extinction.

Many consumers aren’t ready to change

Consumers will always be more open to changes that don’t have a big impact on their day-to-day life. Simple replacements of their standard brand choice with one that is better for the world. Think ‘this peanut butter is made with palm oil; this one isn’t’.

It’s the noble choice to opt for the latter and you don’t have to exert any real effort or change your routine for the world to benefit.

The challenge comes when the core experience changes. When habitual behaviours are uprooted to make way for a more sustainable alternative. This new shampoo and conditioner is a bar and your hair will need to adjust to fewer soapy suds, for example.

Or, it might be less convenient. The fresh produce you buy may not be wrapped in plastic but could require you to bring your own boxes and packing materials. Or if you borrow them from the store you may have to return them later. Many consumers simply aren’t ready for this.

Lisa Desforges – Strategy Director

Think lifestyle brand, not commodity

So, what makes these change-maker brands different? And how are they connecting with consumers to initiate real, positive change?

Put simply, they’re making change desirable. Traditionally, purpose-led brands veered towards save-the-world worthiness – offering a seemingly ‘lesser’ product but with an overly worthy underlying message – or used fearmongering to initiate shifts in consumer habits.

As a result, consumers were often left feeling hard done by. That they were coerced into choosing an inferior product or experience for the sake of brand purpose.

Brand change-makers are different. They are making changes in our everyday behaviours positively and emotionally rewarding, positioning themselves as lifestyle brands rather than commodities. By showing that they understand how consumers live and what their values are, they smooth the way to behavioural change.

Look at THINX, a brand that sells washable, reusable period underwear in a move to reduce the sheer volume of single-use disposable products by asking consumers to actively change their approach to menstruation.

For most women, this is a drastic move and requires a shift in both mindset and routine. So not only does THINX offer a powerful advocacy and education platform to inform and empower – fighting shame around bodies and reproductive health – but its branding inspires change without feeling worthy or fearsome. It’s super positive and powerful. You want to be a part of it.

Make change desirable

From packaging-free aisles to new methods of birth control that take positive steps away from single-use products, the big ‘change-maker’ ideas already exist. Yet the branding industry is still having the same conversations around brand purpose.

Our approach needs to change. Without more innovative approaches to branding, this widespread consumer complacency will continue to act as a barrier to real positive change. Brave brand design is imperative to a more sustainable future, making habitual change desirable, not tiresome.

These forward-thinking brands understand that the often-overused term ‘brand purpose’ now holds greater meaning. It’s no longer simply about brand communications or links to a charitable organisation. It’s about creating real, tangible, proactive change in consumers’ day-to-day lives, and the opportunities are there for those willing to take on the challenge. It’s time to bring on the brand change-makers!

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