Adam Driver
Oct 17, 2022

Not all brands need purpose during a recession

Brands have woken up to how an increased focus on sustainable, green or ethical practices impacts their bottom lines (or triple bottom lines, to be more accurate). However, the impact of recession throws a sizeable spanner in the works.

Not all brands need purpose during a recession

Brand purpose costs, and to put money where your mouth is has a significant outlay. It may not be right for all brands.

Take the recent example of Alan Jope (Unilever chief executive, departing next year); upheaval comes only a few years after taking the role. As analysts point out, the consumer goods giant should be doing well, even during a recession. “Consumers want trusted, affordable household brands like Hellmann's mayonnaise,” explained Jonny Forsyth, director of Mintel Food & Drink, in a LinkedIn post.

So, what is getting in the way of that? Some believe the increasing impact of activist investor, and Unilever board member since May, Nelson Peltz – whose Trian Fund Management has been building up a stake in the company – is to blame.

Peltz’s influence appears to have coincided with Unilever brands becoming fixated on brand purpose, eclipsing functional product uses and practical benefits.

For instance, Ben & Jerry’s is vocal on LGBTQ+ equality and anti-racism, Surf has its Cleaner Planet Plan, Domestos’ improved sanitation programme for Cleaner Toilets Brighter Futures, or TRESemmé’s pledge for female leaders.

The reliance on all brands having a fully immersed purpose can feel like over-indexing on sustainability and ethical credentials, where a focus on the product’s USPs (remember them?) could resonate more during a recessive period.

This becomes more prevalent when disposable income is lower and budgets are tighter – people want a product. A product that does something. Fills a need. Completes a requirement. And they don’t want to always donate to X, or sign up to Y campaign, while they are doing it. Increasingly so when recession hits hard.

Let’s not dance around the issue. The coming years will be tough, very tough. Consider how your brand or organisation deals with ESG values and brand purpose versus being competitive and attractive in other ways.

Of course, it’s great to stand for something, and align where it works. The important phrase there being the last – only where it works.

If your brand is not already thinking about sustainability, or active in bettering its supply chain, don’t crowbar it in.

So will (or should) the recession put sustainability and purpose on the back-burner for brands and their comms strategies? Maybe. It’s all about perspective.

If your product fulfils a basic need rather than being aspirational, focus on that first, before jumping two-footed into a charitable partnership that people can see through.

Do we need all socks to donate profits to forests?

Should home furnishings allude to supporting the llama farmer in Peru? (I really wanted to write llama farmer.)

What about a soap to save the dolphins?

Take brand purpose in the same way as other elements of business – you need a balance, not going full pelt with the blinkers on to the detriment of surviving as businesses.

Money makes the world go around, and that is the same for sustainability and green goals.

To thrive as a business with sustainable credentials, and true brand purpose, you need to first of all survive as a business.

If you don’t profit, you can’t reinvest that profit.

Adam Driver is founder and director of Authentic Comms


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