David Blecken
Sep 7, 2017

The rise of ‘belief-driven buyers’ raises questions around the role of agencies

Who decides what a brand should stand for?

Unilever's 'Help a child reach 5' initiative for Lifebuoy soap is seen as an example of purpose-led branding
Unilever's 'Help a child reach 5' initiative for Lifebuoy soap is seen as an example of purpose-led branding

According to Edelman’s ‘Earned Brand’ study, which the agency presented in Tokyo this week, 39 percent of Japanese consumers are ‘belief-driven buyers’: people who choose, switch, avoid or boycott brands based on the stance those brands take on societal issues. The research is based on responses from 14,000 people across 14 countries.

To be sure, 61 percent of people still aren’t really that engaged: they are termed ‘spectators’, seldom choosing or punishing brands for taking a firm position on an issue. But 11 percent of ‘leaders’ apparently hold very strong beliefs and express them partly through the brands they buy; a further 28 percent, defined as ‘joiners’, are likely to change their purchase behaviour according to what a brand stands for and how it responds to a particular issue.

The millennial generation has the most belief-driven consumers—42 percent. But figures are similarly high among Generation X and Baby Boomers. The belief-driven segment also has the highest spending power: 47 percent of high-income respondents apparently buy brands based on shared beliefs.

In Japan, 17 percent of overall consumers are exhibiting this behaviour more than they did three years ago, against 30 percent globally.

Delivering the findings, Rupen Desai, Edelman’s vice-chairman for Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, referred to Havas’s ‘Meaningful Brands’ study (no relation to Edelman’s) to note that most brands hold little value for the average person. The study showed that people would not care if nearly three quarters of brands just disappeared. (People would switch to Pepsi in the blink of an eye if Coca-Cola ceased to exist, he suggested.) The study also showed that people see the bulk of content that brands produce as irrelevant.

“The amount of importance we’ve given brands is probably not as much as consumers are giving them,” he said in something of an understatement. But he said many consumers are eagerly watching for a brand to slip up, as HIS did last year in a misguided promotion offering passengers the chance to sit next to female university students.

Being relevant doesn’t mean co-opting culture, as Pepsi did with its much-derided campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, he stressed. It means finding your brand’s “North Star”—a purpose that benefits society and aligns with the company’s core business. To illustrate this point, Desai presented the example of Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap (a client in his former role at Lowe) helping prevent infant deaths in India by teaching the importance of washing hands.

Another recent example not included in the presentation but which fits this approach is Lixil’s SATO, an initiative to provide toilet systems to countries that lack basic sanitation. Since bathroom equipment is a central part of Lixil’s business, it goes beyond CSR. “There’s a huge difference between CSR and a genuine North Star,” Desai said.

What role agencies?

These moves, which are presumably decided in the boardroom, also go far beyond PR. Which posits the question, where do PR professionals and agencies fit into the picture? As Desai admitted, the most genuine brands tend to “talk less and act more”.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t talk at all, though. The study indicated that more than half of Japanese ‘belief-driven’ consumers would not buy a brand if it remains silent on an issue they feel it has an obligation to address. More than a third are likely to become loyal to a brand that speaks up appropriately, and nearly 30 percent are likely to become advocates for the brand. Some customers might also abandon the brand.

“There are going to be people who the brand doesn’t resonate with and it’s OK for them to go away,” said Dr Philip Sugai, a marketing professor at Doshisha Business School, who joined as a panelist. “Saying ‘no’ says who you aren’t. Companies are terrified of saying it but we live in a world where you have to.”

Sugai also predicted, perhaps overly optimistically, that companies will become less shareholder-driven in the definition of their values, taking into account the whole ecosystem of customers, business partners and the natural environment. He described the shareholder-centric approach as “old school” and something companies must think beyond. “Those that cater only to their shareholders, I think they’re in trouble,” he said.

Via email, Sugai later said agencies have an important role to play in “helping companies spark these conversations and then take action on the results”.

“If the actions that companies take are truly meaningful and valuable to a specific group of people, then automatically people will talk about them,” Sugai said. “It’s when a company doesn’t mean what it says that PR is weak or unexpectedly negative.” Agencies must therefore help senior executives identify their purpose and take consistent action that reflects it.

Which kind of agency—or indeed consultancy—is best placed to do that, is an open question as the divisions between PR, branding, advertising and consulting continue to fall away.

Campaign Japan

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