Purpose & Cynicism

It's cool to care, for sure, and we like our brands to care as well. But, asks Crowd DNA consultant Milly Derbyshire, could our cynicism be building?

It’s undeniable – activism is having a moment. From Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech to the ‘aesthete activism’ of the Marc by Marc Jacobs AW 2015 collection, and here at Crowd DNA, even a new tribe of activists joining the leading edge of our Tribes UK framework; these days it’s cool to care.

Brands are capitalising on this age of action by pushing their purpose-led credentials. From banks to booze, brands claim to be fighting our corner, in any manner of social, economic and political causes. But with more brands jumping on the band-wagon, it makes us wonder whether the tide will turn from optimism to cynicism.

Take Dove, the beauty brand that has been championing women’s self-esteem and recently released a new advert aiming to show how women all over the world are devaluing their beauty. The advert, and its predecessors, are undoubtedly very shareable, and have proved incredibly successful for the brand.

But how long are consumers going to (literally) buy the idea that a beauty brand can overcome societal ideologies of beauty? Yes consumers are looking for more purpose in brands, but these higher expectations means they need to live by their purpose, not pay lip service to it. It may not be long before people fail to see empowerment in a body cream.

In the words of Douglas Holt’s cultural strategy theory, we wonder whether a cultural orthodoxy is beginning to emerge, as more and more brands take on the charge of social, environmental and political purposes to sell their wares. With consumers more savvy than ever, it’s uncertain how long those brands that fail to back up words with actions will continue to thrive, leaving a space for brands that are frank about the fact that they are in the business of, well, business! Selling things that you need, and not curing social ills.

The Dollar Shave Club, an American subscription service that mails replacement razor heads for a fraction of the cost of leading razor brands, is a great case in point. With the strapline ‘a great shave for a few bucks a month’ it’s clear that the only purpose they’re championing is saving you money. And how do they achieve it? Presumably by avoiding the huge amounts of money spent on marketing to convince you of an ethical purpose behind the brand.

We don’t doubt that purpose-led brands will continue to rise in popularity (in fact, it’s one of our five trends for 2015) but as the bar is being raised even higher, half-hearted attempts to follow suit will appear hollow to ever more savvy consumers.

Photo credit: Kate Owen (Marc by Marc Jacobs’ aesthete activism)