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Are brands guilty of embracing purpose as defined by liberal city dwellers, while largely ignoring other tribes? Asks MHP's Nick Barron

Tech agency WE has just published “Brands in Motion”, a study of consumer attitudes in eight global markets. It is the latest in a long line of PR agency surveys that argue the public wants brands to “stand for something” .

You are what you do

Indeed, the first rule of MHP’s Networked Age model is “Who you are is as important as what you do” precisely because, in an increasingly tribal world, signalling that you share the values of the tribe is a great way to build a relationship with customers.

However, there is more than one tribe and there is more than one set of values. A quick glance at the ‘values-led’ campaigns that surround us suggests the PR industry is super-serving one tribe whilst largely ignoring others.

“There is more to morality than care and fairness.” Jonathan Haidt

In the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that our moral codes are made up of six different core values, like taste buds on a tongue. Put crudely, liberals tend to see morality in terms of ‘fairness’ and ‘protection from harm’, largely to the exclusion of the other four values (loyalty, respect, sanctity and liberty), and so will prioritise social justice causes. Conservatives make more use of the other four and tend to think about fairness in terms of equal opportunity rather than equal outcomes.

Brand purpose campaigns tend to focus on social justice and the environment, which play primarily to the liberal mindset. There is a cold commercial logic to getting woke:

Spending power of liberals

“Democrats have all the money," NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway explained recently. Liberals live in cities and cities are the primary drivers of economic growth. Thus, liberal spending power is growing disproportionately quickly.

When Nike picked a fight with conservative America by turning Colin Kaepernick into a brand ambassador, it gambled successfully that upsetting the part of the country that cares about the sanctity of the national anthem would help them sell more stuff to the part motivated by social justice.

The dangers of groupthink

But our industry has overshot. The advertising, communications and media communities are dominated by liberals like me living in liberal cities like London. We are not just driven by data, but by groupthink. Roughly half the population is being ignored as a result, or worse, misjudged.

When Gillette attacked ‘toxic’ masculinity in an effort to appeal to hipsters who saw the brand as anachronistic, it underestimated the disgust it would provoke among men of all ages, who rejected the crude caricature presented to them. An $8 billion write down of the business followed, and whilst CEO Gary Coombe said that the backlash was “a price worth paying”, its follow-up campaign was conspicuous for featuring heroic male firefighters.

Appealing to Conservatives

Creating brand purpose platforms that appeal to Conservatives doesn’t mean opposing liberal values (issues like animal welfare, nature conservancy and creating opportunity unify both sides). But it does mean understanding that in a world of turmoil, some people would rather brands celebrate and conserve the social order than tear it up.

After all, according to the Brands in Motion report, the number one thing people want brands to do is to “provide stability” – a full 9% higher on consumers’ wish-lists than “taking a stand on important issues”.

In an increasingly polarised world, the first brand that chooses to stand for ‘a nice cup of tea and a sit down’ may be on to a winner.

Written by Nick Barron, deputy CEO of MHP Communications

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