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Amy Dennis: The new agents of change: how brands can win the battle for trust and drive change

In today’s complex global landscape, economic and social uncertainty has left both the world and its inhabitants feeling paralysed, despite the imminent period of innovation and opportunity on the horizon.

Polarisation has led to a death of collaborative, long-term solutions from governments, causing the locus of trust to shift towards brands and businesses embodying the change people aspire to see. This was demonstrated in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, where businesses were more trusted to integrate innovations into society compared to the government.

While larger brands have always been embedded in conversations about change, people are now actively looking for brands, regardless of size, that align with their values. Consumers are moving beyond purpose, they expect brands to be a part of a solution, 86% of consumers say they expect action from brands.

People view brands as potential agents of change. While political agendas often succumb to short-termism, brands offer a sense of stability and engagement, often focussing on specific issues and aligning with values. By extension, this allows consumers to act according to their beliefs by choosing where and where not to spend their money.

The customer is always right

Consumers today demand action from brands, moving into tangible, impactful initiatives. True purpose necessitates an initial investment, a commitment that goes beyond rhetoric. It’s moving beyond how a brand looks and talks to how they act.

Take for example, Heineken’s innovative approach with shutter ads during the pandemic. Instead of sticking to traditional out-of-home media, they diverted their budget to support local bars by transforming shuttered spaces into advertisement spots.

Not only did this breathe life into dormant areas but it also provided struggling bar owners (their valued on-trade customers) with a new source of income and an increased sense of loyalty to Heineken. The result? An impressive 7.5 million euros injected into bars, with every bar involved reopening, creating 40% more media value than traditional out-of-home advertising.

Heineken’s consistent alignment with their brand mission, “we brew the joy of true togetherness to inspire a better world,” unlocks the brand’s power. An illustration of this commitment was their collaboration with Gary Neville and Jill Scott, the duo swapped X accounts during a game commentary to address the pervasive abuse directed at women in the public eye. With the tagline “this season, let’s keep all opinions at football,” Heineken aimed to spotlight a critical societal issue during a high-profile event, shifting focus to the game itself.

These instances go beyond rhetoric, showcasing a brand can act purposefully in line with its values through engaging initiatives that drive positive change.

Use your brand’s position for good

Brands striving to affect change should aim for simplicity and inclusivity in engagement. It’s crucial to bridge the gap between purpose, accessibility, and action.

Decathlon’s “Ability Signs” campaign is a compelling example. By reimagining the International Symbol of Access, Decathlon successfully democratized sports and fostered inclusivity. The initiative’s global impact, including its adoption by the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games underscores the power of purpose-driven actions in creating positive change. The simplicity of the idea was extremely resonating and led to great success (270m organic impression). Brands can draw inspiration from this endeavour, recognizing that bridging the gap between the positive intent of a brand, accessibility, and action is key to meaningful impact in today’s market.

The journey towards meaningful change requires sustained effort. In a landscape cluttered with complexities, brands offer a consistent platform for expressing values and provide a tangible way for individuals to influence change.

This is where brands can potentially run into trouble, however. There’s a growing discrepancy between brand messaging and organisational practices, causing consumers to become wary of ‘purpose-washing.’

Bud Light’s recent ad controversy is a perfect example of this. Rather than standing by its campaign, it backtracked and promised to focus future marketing promotions on music and sport. If Bud Light truly championed the inclusive values it was initially promoting, then it would have stood by the campaign, regardless of the potential detrimental impact to profit.

Becoming an agent of change isn’t a surface-level endeavour. It requires brands to act according to their values in everything they do even if it costs them to do so. Consumers gauge the authenticity of a brand’s commitment, and it directly influences their level of engagement, as demonstrated by the backlash Bud Light received for backtracking. Looking ahead, it is crucial that brands act with focus and intent, refraining from purpose signalling and merely adopting causes they won’t steadfastly support when their profits are at stake.

We must not lose sight of the role of a brand, brands serve as conduits for information, illustrating value for customers and influencing their purchasing decisions. Those brands that genuinely act as agents of change embody the solutions people eagerly seek.

Take Smol, a brand that reshapes value in a commoditised market. They’ve centred their offering around sustainability: plastic-free packaging, recyclable materials, and a sharp focus on reducing carbon footprint. What sets them apart is their commitment to affordability without compromising on ethical standards. They’re challenging the notion that eco-friendly means pricey and ineffective, emphasising that better choices shouldn’t break the bank or lead to an inferior experience.

Technological advances will only foster deeper connections between brands and consumers, enabling more participatory initiatives and transparent supply chains.

Similarly, as the Zalpha generation, straddling the tail end of Generation Z and the beginning of Generation Alpha, assume positions of influence earlier than previous generations, they’re poised to instil a widespread culture of responsibility; a shift from a consumerist mindset to one centred around civic accountability.

As brands face increasingly complex challenges, their sincere commitment to driving change will become more important than ever to build trust and loyalty.

Their actions, which resonate beyond just marketing strategies, align their values with meaningful initiatives to create a solid foundation that helps them navigate challenges with resilience and credibility.

As authenticity and accountability become more and more prioritised, brands that go back to the essence of what they stand for and contribute to societal progress will maintain their role as drivers of change.

Amy Dennis is client director of brand agency Born Ugly.

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