Brands discovered in 2023 that purpose could be divisive like political platforms.
Chick-fil-A, a company built on Christian values, found itself simultaneously shunned by the left for its past stance on LGBTQ+ issues and by the right for its recent commitment to diversity. This wasn’t an isolated incident. From clothing chains to coffee shops, brands with purpose-driven messages stumbled into unexpected minefields, their attempts to connect with consumers backfiring spectacularly.
Brewing company Heineken similarly faced backlash from all sides of the political arena with its purpose-driven foray into sustainability marketing. On the right, the company’s new zero-waste packaging was mocked by right-wing personalities for using “woke buzzwords.” And, despite having good intentions to reduce plastic waste, Heineken’s attempt to capture more progressive Gen Z consumers sparked cries of virtue signaling on social issues unrelated to its core beer products.
Divided Society And Plunging KPIs
As controversies engulfed one high-flying brand after another, several systemic impediments emerged behind the scenes thwarting purpose-driven marketing’s potential. From Bud Light sparking ire with a transgender influencer partnership to Gucci fumbling its North American sales with missteps on social issues, companies striving for a higher purpose appeared unprepared for the divisiveness of a society driven by political partisanship, culture wars, and constant social media amplification.
Bud Light’s inauthenticity triggered boycotts that dethroned it from the top U.S. beer spot and sent parent company AB InBev’s revenue plummeting 13.5%. Meanwhile, Target’s cautious retreat from some Pride support sparked accusations of abandoning core values, eroding their brand favorability by 6.1% and sending stock prices tumbling.
These high-profile debacles underscored the unforgiving consequences of missteps: Adidas faced a 51% plunge in trust and a $343 million operating loss for bungling a celebrity scandal, while Gucci’s fumble on social issues sent North American sales into a tailspin.
Purpose Faced A Perfect Storm In 2023
This year laid bare the perils of superficial branding, while simultaneously affirming purpose retains value when rooted in genuine care for people over profits. Despite these stumbles, 2023 wasn’t a complete failure for purpose-driven marketing. The lesson lay in execution, not principle. Brands navigating this minefield faced a perfect storm of sociopolitical tensions, deficit strategies, and consumer skepticism. The coming election year promises little reprieve from societies’ tears for those failing to heed its lessons.
If 2023 was a rocky terrain, fasten your seatbelts for 2024’s rollercoaster. With a presidential election looming, the cultural and political fissures threatening brands are likely to widen further. Consumers, hyper-aware and hyper-engaged, will wield online influence like never before, amplifying controversies and unforgivingly punishing missteps.
The pressure to navigate sociopolitical landmines without alienating any segment of the audience will be intense, potentially jeopardizing marketing budgets and brand loyalty.
The Recurring Pitfalls Undermining Purpose-Driven Marketing
- Navigating Sociopolitical Divisions in Branding: Brands face challenges in a politically charged environment, with actions often leading to backlash or boycotts. Companies like Target and Bud Light experienced criticism for perceived betrayals in their efforts to address sociopolitical issues.
- The Challenge of Authenticity in Purpose: Brands are criticized for superficially addressing social issues. This perceived lack of authenticity in their commitment leads to consumer skepticism.
- Consumer Skepticism and Brand Activism: There’s a decline in consumer interest in brands taking sociopolitical stances. Companies struggle to build trust and are often seen as exploiting issues rather than genuinely addressing them.
- Trust-Building in a Polarized Environment: Brands find it difficult to navigate polarized opinions and build trust. Efforts to acknowledge different perspectives often lead to dissatisfaction among various groups.
- Social Media Amplification of Brand Crises: The rapid spread of information on social media can escalate brand crises. Brands struggle to manage their responses and maintain coherence across channels.
- AI and the Need for Human Connection in Branding: Reliance on AI for content creation can lead to a lack of emotional resonance and cultural sensitivity. Human creativity remains essential for effectively navigating sociocultural nuances in branding.
- Internal Alignment and Brand Purpose: Many brands fail to align their internal culture with their external messaging, leading to accusations of hypocrisy. Consistency across all brand touchpoints is crucial.
- Sustaining Long-Term Purpose Initiatives: Short-term financial pressures often conflict with long-term brand purpose initiatives. Brands need sustained investment and integrated strategies to align their actions with their messaging.
- Measuring Brand Impact Beyond Metrics: Brands often react hastily to controversies, impacting long-term brand equity. A more holistic approach to measuring brand health, beyond just quantitative metrics, is needed.
The KickGlass Principles: Rethinking Purpose For 2024
Looking ahead, the central lessons lie less in avoiding purpose altogether, than in recalibrating tactics with sensitivity to present complexities. For resilient companies with care, patience, and courage, authentic purpose efforts grounded in community still hold transformational promise, if anchored in the human experiences they aim to reflect.
Contrast Bud Light’s plummet with Seventh Generation’s steady growth despite escalating tensions. While other brands tripped wires, Seventh Generation’s long-running sustainability initiatives anchored in improving community health continued resonating. With a 19% sales bump in 2023, Seventh Generation’s pragmatic idealism prevailed by walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
KickGlass Branding proposes five guiding principles that offer a compass for navigating the complexities of 2024’s marketing landscape:
1. Generative Empathy Fuels Authentic Alignment
Ditch tokenism and superficial gestures. Foster deep, ongoing relationships with marginalized communities through co-creation and collaboration. Let their lived experiences, not marketing trends, shape your messaging and initiatives. This builds authentic connections and transcends the cynical skepticism plaguing brands today.
In 2023, Netflix bolstered content creator partnerships with marginalized communities, funding projects amplifying authentic voices and co-designing marketing plans.
2. Inclusive Intersectionality to Forge Common Ground
Embrace the fact that people hold diverse identities that intersect in complex ways. Go beyond surface-level diversity and reflect the full spectrum of lived experiences in your brand narrative. This fosters genuine representation and builds bridges across ideological divides, uniting people through shared humanity rather than fragmented viewpoints.
Sephora’s 2023 “We Belong” campaign featured multidimensional imagery celebrating diverse beauty across race, gender identity, age, and ability with input from consumer advisory boards. Stores featuring localized displays of their inclusive product campaigns saw conversion rates improve by 19% compared to locations without adapted visual merchandising.
3. Social Wellbeing to Demonstrate Tangible Commitment
Actions speak louder than words. Align your brand purpose with concrete initiatives that demonstrably improve social well-being, especially in communities historically marginalized or impacted by your operations. Focus on areas where your core competencies can make a genuine difference, demonstrating commitment through action, not just rhetoric.
In 2023, Disney made sizable investments to substantially improve accessibility and inclusion across its theme park experiences, enhancing social well-being for disabled visitors and underserved groups
4. Pluralism and Resilience to Navigate Polarization
Avoid getting sucked into the vortex of online outrage and counter-outrage. Acknowledge diverse perspectives without vilifying dissent. Focus on shared values and strive for mutual understanding. While navigating controversy requires agility, knee-jerk reactions are counterproductive. Building trust takes time and consistent action, not impulsive pronouncements.
In 2023, targeted misinformation campaigns attempted to vilify DocuSign for promoting diverse representation internally and in advertising. Rather than succumbing to vitriolic polarization, however, DocuSign chose compassionate storytelling highlighting shared values of trust and understanding with its customer base.
5. Augmented Intelligence to Balance Analytical Precision with Cultural Nuance
Embrace AI’s analytical power, but never at the expense of human oversight and cultural sensitivity. Leverage AI to identify potential bias and blind spots, but let human empathy and understanding guide your creative direction. This ensures your messaging resonates with specific communities without falling into cultural appropriation or tone-deafness.
In 2023, Spotify maintained rigorous human oversight on machine learning, protecting against algorithmic biases while responsibly utilizing AI to match listeners with creators across divides.
Conclusion: Beyond the Tightrope Walk, Building Bridges
While 2023 served as a harsh lesson in purpose gone wrong, it also revealed the potential for transformation when purpose is pursued with authenticity and strategic intention. As we enter 2024, the call to action for brands is clear: evolve your marketing beyond lip service, forge connections across divides, and invest in real progress. Embrace the KickGlass principles as a compass, but remember, the map is constantly changing.
By fostering agility, resilience, and a deep understanding of our ever-shifting landscapes, brands can navigate the choppy waters of purpose and ultimately, emerge stronger and more connected on the other side.