What defines a progressive brand?

You have probably heard the term ‘progressive brand’, but what exactly does it mean?

To pin it down, research firm The Pulse Business asked around 1,000 communications leaders based in the UK working either in-house directors or as agency MDs, to define what a progressive brand looks like today. The answers list several factors, the top two being: “Staying true to your values and purpose with everything you do” and “Listening to critics (as well as supporters) and taking action.”

Which one of these, if any, defines a progressive brand today?

Rich Rawlins, CEO of agency Finn Communications, gives his take on progressive brands and why PR needs to up its game
The world is changing at a pace, scale and complexity never seen before. Consumer behaviours and beliefs are radically changing too whilst technology continues to transform our lives and accelerate the speed at which this all takes shape.

Under scrutiny
Brands are now under perpetual scrutiny from sustainability, health, diversity and inclusivity to supply chain ethics, executive pay, total societal impact. And on top of that, the needs and expectations of consumers, stakeholders and employees are more exacting than ever.

Having the counsel of smart PR to help brands see their way through this period of change is a must. Not least because all of this comes with considerable risk.

There will be winners and losers in our progressive new world. Communication has never been more critical. Brands will succeed or fail if the strategy is not well thought through and rooted in a deep understanding of what it means to be progressive.

Constant evolution
Progressive is not woke and it’s not just about ‘purpose’. A progressive brand means being aligned constantly with the evolving needs and expectations of customers, employees and other stakeholders. Progressiveness demands brands are attuned to the societal impact of their activities whilst driving innovation and revenue growth inside their product categories. Progressive brands generate profit but also make a credible and measurable impact on the lives of those around them. They are the brands who are now shaping the world in powerful and constructive ways.

To understand what defines a progressive brand, they are the brands that are driven by (and operate with) a different set of behaviours and values. These fall into eight core areas:

  1. Being dedicated to what gives their brands meaning and purpose
  2. Committed to continual innovation and self-improvement
  3. Engage and relate to their publics in open, mutually-beneficial ways
  4. Ready to agitate and disrupt
  5. Are agile and dynamic
  6. Take the lead and use their power and influence intelligently
  7. Stay true to their core beliefs
  8. Believe in action not activism

Critically, progressive branding is all about how a brand acts not how it communicates. These brands know the difference between progressive branding and progressive behaviour.

Thomas Kolster who wrote Goodvertising, the definitive book on brand purpose has had a change of heart. As he wrote recently,

"Not a day passes in adland where I dont have to reach out for the emotional, do-good, aspirational, moon-landing-narrated purpose puke bucket".

Up your game
It is time for PR to step up.

Progressive behaviour is the new trap that the PR industry has fallen into. Chasing the coverage, the like, the re-tweet has created a series of ‘virtue-signalling’ tactics. Some are effective, some back fire.

The real issue here is the failure to embrace the strategic opportunity which is to help our clients become more progressive. Not by encouraging them to jump on the virtue signalling bandwagon, but by being a critical friend, pointing out the uncomfortable truth and helping brands to actually change their behaviour. This makes for hard conversations and equally hard decision making. But if we don’t step up, we’ll be failing both our clients and our craft itself.


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