When companies first started branding their products, it was merely to show proprietorship. Soon, consumers evolved and understood that products that were known for consistent quality were dependable and hence they started buying more of these ‘brands’. Companies took note of this and advertising was born. In its most basic sense, advertising made people aware of products that were good or unique and tied that goodwill to a name. As time moved on, consumers evolved again. They were no longer satisfied with mere quality, as at any given point, they had a number of quality options in their consideration set. Companies and their marketing departments also learned that physical product attributes could easily be replicated by their competitors.
Eventually, advertising evolved to communicate an emotional aspect about a brand; for example, Coke standing for ‘Happiness’ or Pepsi as the ‘Choice of the New Generation’. These are ideas rather than physical features, yet they were far more powerful words than merely saying ‘more fizz’ or ‘sweeter’.
Today, emotional equity, like physical product attributes, is no longer enough to build brand loyalty. Millennials are very aware of their surroundings; they live in a world filled with problems and a media that constantly amplifies these problems. Political turmoil, pollution, crime, war, lack of basic necessities and minimum wages are among the many issues that bother them. They look to established entities to work towards solving these issues and contribution from businesses and industry are also part of that expectation.
Pepsi for example, did well in Pakistan with their ‘Litre of Light’ campaign. For every bottle of Pepsi sold, the company contributed a small amount to a fund that would then provide electricity to those villages that until then had not been electrified. Social media talked about the initiative and the campaign went viral. People appreciate it when a commercial entity gives back to the community and it creates a soft spot for the brand doing this.
Now, there will be marketers who will ask: “How many rupees did that translate into directly?”
While there is no measure to calculate this, I think they are fundamentally off in their approach about such campaigns. There is ‘share of market’ and then there is ‘share of heart’. The first can be directly translated into monetary numbers, but the other is a soft KPI. Winning people’s hearts is a slow process that may not immediately turn into cash; yet, it has been consistently proven that winning ‘share of heart’ leads to solid brand loyalty and it is this loyalty that will eventually convert to bottom-line numbers.
For this generation, a brand advertising ‘happiness’ for example, is seen as a fake claim made by a manufacturer desperately trying to sell a product. Advertising is no longer trusted the way it was in the old days, when the much more naïve Baby Boomers believed the content that flashed on their TV tubes. Everything that was shared was believed because you know – TV doesn’t lie. For the new generation, TV is nothing but lies. However, some of these brands genuinely believe in their causes. For the people working in marketing and on the factory floors, what Coke stood for was a powerful idea; it was not just a marketing gimmick. The brand captured an entire era of American culture, heritage, good times and of course happiness. However, Coke did not just pay lip service to happiness; instead, they demonstrated how the brand is contributing to spreading happiness in several campaigns that went viral.
A good example of this evolution comes from Dove. When Dove launched in 1957, the soap had a very strong USP in the fact that it was a quarter moisturising cream. In 1960, however, Dove stopped talking about the soap’s attributes; instead, they started talking to women in emotional terms. They did this because they saw that their consumers were evolving. From soft and smooth skin, Dove slowly started talking about being a feminine product and one that beautiful women deserved to pamper themselves with. Finally, Dove launched their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which talked about inner beauty and challenged the unnecessarily high standards women had to meet in order to be considered beautiful. The brand challenged the basic definition of beauty in society. The impact of the Dove campaign was undisputable. It re-energised the brand by giving it a greater purpose. Dove was no longer a shampoo or a soap; the brand became a superstar for women and an advocate of their issues. Dove won the largest ‘share of heart’ of any brand in its category and in the process, this translated into bottom-line results.
Winning people’s hearts is a slow process that may not immediately turn into cash; yet, it has been consistently proven that winning ‘share of heart’ leads to solid brand loyalty and it is this loyalty that will eventually convert to bottom-line numbers.
This brings us to the kind of activism a brand should adopt.
I have had the unique experience of taking up this task first-hand with a global team when I was working with Ogilvy on the Mondelēz account. At that point, Tang had taken up activism in the Latin American market. The brand stood up for sustainability and worked with children to create awareness on issues such as deforestation and conservation.
When the time came to adapt the campaign globally, it became clear that the same kind of activism would not work in every market; the cause had to be locally-relevant. Deforestation was something that Latin American children could relate to because of the crisis in Brazil and other South American countries. To a child in Saudi Arabia, deforestation and conservation meant nothing. Research showed that Saudi children are privileged and a campaign to help the less-privileged by donating their old toys immediately grabbed their imagination. This campaign set a Guinness world record when it was implemented in the GCC countries.
Tang was not only doing a CSR activity. If it was, it could just as easily have done something like donating books to schools. The difference between CSR and activism is that the latter is tied to the essence of a brand. Dove did not just go to African villages and donate food. That would have been a CSR activity. They stood for beauty and they found a way to advocate this within the brand’s essence. Similarly, Tang locked into something it stood for which was ‘advocating for children all over the world’ and it started to build communication around it.
Brand activism is a long-term game. It is not a tactical campaign. When treated as such it comes across as fake, which is why many such campaigns fail. Brand activism can be either passive or active. It is the latter that gives the most benefit. Passive activism is what the brand consciously chooses not to do. It does not necessarily communicate values; it just abides by them. A brand that chooses not to employ child labour in the manufacturing process is doing passive activism. Being active means going one step further and launching a campaign to create awareness about the issues arising from child labour and perhaps take positive steps, such as providing financial assistance to families so that they can send their children to school.
To conclude, in the beginning having a quality product was enough; next, people started responding to emotional benefits and today’s generation wants to see brands giving back to their communities. Smart marketing teams will understand this trend and start putting a plan in place to embark on brand activism. They will understand that this is more about building brand loyalty by winning ‘share of heart’, which eventually translates into long-term financial gains and will not think of it as a gimmick that can quickly help them reach this quarter’s sales targets.
Syed Amir Haleem is CEO, Kueball Digital. firstname.lastname@example.org