“Authenticity” in brands has become the mystic touchstone of 21st century advertising; you mutter the incantation, sacrifice the goat and lo and behold, your campaign feels ‘authentic.’ But what does ‘authentic’ really mean to audiences now?
Commercials where wearing the right deodorant scores you the babe and making the right oven chips makes your family actually love you are becoming things of the past, thankfully. The received wisdom being that Millenials are far too savvy to be taken in by such ingenuous schlock and that brands need to try harder to really ‘connect.’ We’ve since been told time and again that the only way to cut through the babble of false promises, is to tell genuine stories that actually resonate with people.
However, as with all ad trends, our super-saturated media environment soon became awash with the scrabble to tell the ‘genuine’ story; we’ve all seen the million videos of a man and his grandfather hand-making the same whisky togehter since the dawn of time, or the punk-rock art student living on a council estate who just wants you to buy Doc Martens and be himself. The ‘genuine’ story is losing its sheen somewhat. It’s all beginning to gain that cynical, tired whiff, that Gen Zs can sniff out like a fake Yeezy trainer at a Shoreditch pop-up sale. People are becoming wise to the fact that brand “genuine’ and actual genuine have evolved into distinctly different beasts.
Furthermore, people don’t want to just consume and consume and consume anymore, no matter how authentic a product is. Economists are heralding an end to our love affair with stuff for stuff’s sake; it turns out we may have actually reached a saturation point, not only with how much we need, but shockingly, with how much we want. Folks know that a new pair of jeans isn’t going to make them thinner, a new car won’t make them irresistible and a new phone won’t save them from the inevitability of the ground’s cold embrace, so maybe just stick with the one you’ve got and try to pay off your mortgage?
So, instead of selling a dream, a fable or a ‘heartfelt’ backstory, brands have realized they have to actually give consumers something more tangible; the knowledge that all this consumption isn’t entirely meaningless. What if there was a social or ecological benefit coming from your purchase? What if buying a pair of shoes actually genuinely helped others or catalyzed some sort of positive social change? When TOMs started doing this back in 2006 it ignited the beacon for popular ethical consumption; slowly we are realizing that the modern consumer is the ethical consumer.
This lean towards responsible citizenship and consumption is saturating all areas of economics. For example a recent study of Millenial work practices shows that 62% want to work for a company that makes a positive impact, half prefer purposeful work to a high salary, and 53% would work harder if they were making a difference to others. ‘Organic, ethical and sustainable brands are the quickest growing in the world” says Ben Akers of sustainable development agency Futerra. . He cites Patagonia as an example of a brand using this information well, with their “Don’t Buy this Jacket” campaign gaining legendary status within the ad world, encouraging people to buy quality pieces that last, over constantly renewing what they’ve already got.It seems like, generally speaking, a new generation of consumers, who behave with a conscience is emerging.
The brand that acts ethically also creates interesting conversations and interactions with consumers. People are genuinely passionate about social issues and sustainable products in a way that few would admit to being about their Primark shirt. You can really like your cup of coffee, but not as much as you like the concept of a world free of racial hatred or FGM. Everyone has issues close to their own heart, (unless they have a tiny black metal heart that runs on blood diamonds and hate like Donald Trump’s) and chances are if it matters to them, they’re going to want to talk about it, tweet about it and post about it.
When we spoke to David Hieatt of Hiut Denim, and author of “Do Purpose’ he talked of this social communication as being key to the shift into ethical consumption , “Social Media has made things more transparent, so we want more from our brands.The back and forth between brands and consumers demands a new kind of honesty and integrity from each other.’ Ben Akers of Futerra agrees, citing the emergence of an economy of ethics as “A global need. The rise of information being more readily online means people can be more curious about what they buy, which means brands and advertising has begun to wake up. It’s only the start. It’s got a long way to go.”
It’s not enough for brands to just align themselves with any old cause though, there must be some resonance within their brand or it just feels like those politicians who do campaign raps to get “down with the kids” . We talked to Steve Peters of digital agency Code Computerlove who warned “I think unless it’s genuine and sincere then it’s easy to get wrong. If it’s treated like a campaign it’s already failed. It has to be a brand truth. And something they not only invest in but grow over time.”
The ‘inclusive’ Smirnoff campaign is a good example of this going wrong; their “We’re Open” campaign felt shoehorned onto the brand, which after all sells Vodka, not rainbow banners and freedom! And is it any coincidence the “inclusion’ campaign came out at about the same time as all the Pussy Riot, gay persecution hoo-ha was going down in Russia? It felt more like damage control than a heart felt message.
Whereas if the message makes sense with the product, great! Dove is a fantastic example of a brand championing a cause that resonates with their product; accepting your body, loving yourself and treating yourself well. Their Campaign for Real Beauty has been running for 12 years now and shows that if the message actually means something to people, it will last. This has been reflected in their sales, which have risen from 2.5 billion in the campaign’s first year, to 4 billion today.
When we spoke to Rosie Kitson of Mindshare she nailed down how this more socially aware business model works longterm; “20th century business focused on how it could extract maximum value from society to drive shareholder value, thinking that is quickly becoming outdated – along with the credit-debit mentality that bore the CSR movement. 21st century business thinking has shifted towards how it can create long term value.” And of course this longterm value has to mean money for the brand’s themselves or buisnesses just wouldn’t do it, Rosie continues, “It is starting to make commercial sense. Milliard Brown (WPP market research firm) has found that Purpose-driven brands (or brands which are seen to “make people’s lives better”) grow at twice the rate of those which are not. Similarly Unilever has reported that their brands with “purpose” (I.e. Dove, Life Buoy, Persil etc) are growing at twice the speed of the others in their portfolio. ”
However, a cause needen’t be as heart rending an issue as loving yourself or world peace, as Sunshine’s alignment of Bailey’s as a sponser for the women’s literature prize shows. This pairing serves to show where the brand stands (supporting smart women) , it imbues itself with something more interesting than just milky booze and gives back whilst creating interesting conversations. WINNER!
This sea change within the ethics of consumption is therefore not only causing products to get better, more people centric, greener, longer lasting, but in turn, it is making the advertising better; less about tricking people into buying what they don’t need, but more about hooking them up with what they’re interested in and that means something to them. As Rosie Kitson says, “I think it is more than a trend, I think it is a fundamental shift in the business and consumer mindset. I also believe that as a result – marketing can and should act as an accelerator of this shift, leading brands to do more good and demonstrating the commercial impact.”
We’ve always believed in the power of film to move people so these are exciting times for us here at Maker HQ, where we can flex that deep rooted need to make films that stimulate debate, raise awareness and make a difference. Look out for our “Films For Good” initiative, coming soon and kicking off with our film for Mystery Vibe, celebrating frank and open discussions of female sexuality.