At a recent event in London hosted by the Account Planning Group (a not-for-profit organisation for planners and strategists) I was asked to respond to the question ‘What future for brands in a post-capitalist era?’ Shaping my response proved to be a cathartic experience—and left me optimistic about the future of the brand-building business and excited about the arrival of a new era.
Things have moved a long way since the last totemic stance against capitalism in the Naomi Klein No Logo era (2002). We are hearing fewer and fewer people banging the anti-corporate drum. Sure greed is not good, but big is not bad either.
Our work at Flamingo is increasingly involved with embedding social purpose into brands and businesses. Indeed, this is one of our fastest-growing specialties. We are seeing that corporations and brands are entering a new, exciting space in the world. As consumers go through a crisis in confidence and we observe a global decline in trust across both NGOs and government, people are looking around at who is left to ‘change the world’ and coming to the gradual realisation that big business might just be the best hope for lasting change. Business is no longer a dirty word—quite the opposite. This shift is evidenced by published data such as Edelman’s Good Purpose barometer. In 2012, 76 percent of global consumers believed it was acceptable for brands to support good causes and make money—a 33 percent increase from 2008.
This is not just about big business being the only option, the last resort. Rather consumers are seeing the positive influence of corporations on international governments and policy making. We no longer hear the cynical accusations of ‘green washing’. Instead in this new post-CSR ‘triple bottom line’ era there is recognition that capitalism might just be the saviour we have all been waiting for, making real life measurable and positive impact on the planet and its global inhabitants. Indeed in recent Flamingo research for an FMCG brand, consumers declared that the brand in question was more likely to arrest deforestation than a major environmental charity. In their words: "The charities have had their turn, but proven inefficient, now it is time to see what business can do."
But this isn’t just about consumers demanding purpose from business. This is about businesses understanding that there is good commercial sense in going beyond the typical CSR ‘offsetting approach’ to global citizenship, to becoming an actively positive influence in the world….a win-win situation. We hear a new inspiring discourse from global industry leaders committing to go beyond profit to a model of profits with purpose or ‘doing well by doing good’. In recent years we have seen Pampers grow from a $3 billion to a $9 billion business and Patagonia increase its sales by 33 percent in the wake of their social-purpose campaigns.
And in an interesting mirror we see some of the most progressive and successful NGOs looking to big businesses as a model for achieving change. For the first time in history the UN SDGs (sustainable development goals) have explicitly talked about partnership with business as a key part of their strategy in delivering against these goals, an unprecedented move unique to this moment in history.
This exchange between companies and not-for-profit entities can extend far beyond standard partnership models. We know that the world’s most successful brands have the power to add to the language, evolve the behaviours, and shape the experiences that enrich people’s lives. And so it seems obvious that the power of brands—and indeed the skill of brand-building—can be leveraged in new and exiting ways for genuine social change. Take the ground-breaking project in Sierra Leone, which brings together a coalition of brand experts (Flamingo included), advocates and NGOs, building a mass-media brand designed exclusively to project new images of girls into society and shift the social norms that hold them back. Repositioning girls, rather than a product or a category. The project is founded on the profoundly capitalist idea of selling ideas, of marketing belief systems, using the craft of insight to uncover deep-seated human behaviour and turning these into powerful stories. Like we all do every day: But this time to change the way a whole nation thinks and behaves.
If Byron Sharp is arguing for the end of 'brand love', we believe that social purpose might be moving in to occupy the vacuum it leaves behind (Marketing 3.0 perhaps?), making shared value a prime differentiator in commodity-driven categories. We have certainly seen a huge uplift in briefs where brands and companies have recognised the business potential in communicating a more socially ‘caring message’—from Always ‘Like a girl’ to MAC’s AIDS Fund to Tide’s Loads of Hope. We can expect more of these briefs as brands engage with a new, multi-dimensional consumer mindset.
Our marketing 3.0 era epitomises mass people power with greater impact than that of the more niche anti-corporate protests that make great news, but bring little change to the world. What consumer wouldn’t want this? They are able to play a part in improving the world just by continuing in their purchasing routines, albeit with a considered brand choice. Switching to a brand that's offering to change the world feels like (in our respondents’ words): "A no brainer; why on earth wouldn’t you?"
Gone is the scepticism of the past to businesses capitalising on conscience (62 percent of young people in the UK believe it's OK for businesses to make a profit out of making the world a better place, according to a recent Salt Communications survey.)
So, in summary, we don’t think the language of post-capitalism is helpful at all. Instead this is a story about shifts in trust. It’s about how to help brands benefit from the new faith being placed in them and how to help the world benefit from new brand priorities. Here’s to a bright future.
Kirsty Fuller is co-founder and co-CEO of Flamingo. She would like to thank colleagues Gail Steeden and Rosa Bransky, both directors of social purpose.