Picture: 123RF/Weerapat Wattanapichayakul
Picture: 123RF/Weerapat Wattanapichayakul

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing brands to rethink their advertising approach to become more empathetic and socially responsible.

Mike Middleton, who’s headed local marketing operations for the likes of KFC and Mondeléz International, says the crisis has highlighted the impact of human behaviour on the planet, particularly with regard to climate change driven by "untamed consumerism and capitalism". He believes consumers are fast realising things need to change.

"These consumers are increasingly aware of which brands are doing good and which don’t care, and it affects their purchasing decisions," he says. "Covid-19 has given the world a chance to breathe, and people a chance to re-evaluate what’s important. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t have a significant impact on consumer behaviour."

Middleton is now the SA representative for Innate Motion, a global strategy consultancy and one of the early initiators of purpose-led marketing, which is driven by a desire to do good beyond financial gain and consider companies’ impact on people and the planet in addition to profit. Middleton says that in the new operating paradigm, brands and their agencies have little choice but to recalibrate.

"Doing advertising for good means doing business for good. It means your brand has a purpose embedded in its core and takes a long-term view on its role in business, society and, most importantly, consumers’ lives. This purpose drives all its actions and behaviours and focuses the brand on its holistic role in society, beyond mere shareholder return."

Mike Middleton. Picture: Supplied
Mike Middleton. Picture: Supplied

One of the challenges for any brand is to develop a strategy that amounts to more than mere "goodwashing" — simply paying lip service. Says Middleton: "Developing the strategy is not the difficult part. It’s getting brands to genuinely want to make it a part of their ethos. If a strategy doesn’t have buy-in from all levels of the organisation, and it isn’t used as the sole guiding light for all its actions and behaviours, it will become goodwashing."

Heidi Brauer, chief marketing officer at Hollard Insurance, says if companies don’t show consumers and society they have value that goes beyond their products, they will have a harder time being sustainable. "Being more than just the sum of your product intrinsic is essential. People need to first be aware of your brand and what you sell, but then also what you stand for beyond the product and price. Younger generations are demanding socially conscious organisations both as places to work and places to do business with."

Brauer thinks Covid-19 has shown up lazy marketers and agencies that hopped on cause-driven bandwagons. "You don’t want to just make ads bragging about your CSI/CSR work or tag a pay-off line onto a product piece."

Many of the brands that performed well in this year’s Sunday Times Gen Next survey have demonstrated strong brand purpose. Judges said more than ever young consumers want to hear what brands are doing, and if they don’t like their behaviour they will simply move on.

Supporting that analysis is a new survey by the Havas agency group that says eight in 10 consumers believe brands have an important role to play during the Covid-19 crisis. Almost 80% of respondents have a stronger affiliation to brands and businesses that go above and beyond during this period, and the same percentage believes brands need to adapt to help the greater good. Two-thirds say they would abandon brands and businesses that acted only in their own self-interest.

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