23 July 2020 – Altruism is not a new concept for brands. There has been much discussion about being purpose-led and ‘having heart’ at the core of a business model, but never before has this been more important than during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
As far back as 2013, marketing titles were trumpeting the value of cause-related marketing. In the pandemic era, when memes and pithy internet quotes alike are calling for kindness, it could be argued that only tone-deaf organisations turn a blind eye. But what does this mean for marketers now and in the foreseeable future?
Any doubt that an altruistic image affects consumer behaviour can be dismissed with the outcomes of a study conducted in Taiwan. Authors Chun-Tuan Chang, Xing-Yu, Chu and I-Tin Tsai asked consumers if their attitudes and purchase intentions were influenced by cause-marketing campaigns, and the response was unequivocal. “When consumers perceive the company’s motives as altruistic, they form a more positive attitude toward the brand and a stronger purchase intention. Their actual purchase behaviour also reflects similar patterns,” they wrote.
Of course, theory is one thing, practice quite another. Before COVID-19 was on everyone’s lips, the second greatest disaster of 2020, the Australian bushfires, gave local companies an opportunity to express humanity with a marketing exercise that became a movement.
Most companies started with a social media post detailing a promotion which saw a percentage of sales going towards fighting the fires; yes, they got to do business – and soaring business at that, because consumers could address their needs while helping others simultaneously. But more than this, the companies emerged not only as purveyors of goods but also as national heroes. It was, as anchordigital.com.au put it, a “win-win-win” because Australia’s fire-fighting organisations got to benefit, too.
Those companies that get altruism right reap significant rewards, as the same website points out, citing Jaden Smith’s JUST Water as a great example: valued at $100 million, he’s making money while also ensuring communities have clean water, thanks to its Water Box offering.
Clearly, this is a company that has ‘good’ built into its DNA – but some companies are getting it hopelessly wrong. Usually, the mistakes they’re making are basic by being flippant, irrelevant or downright inauthentic. Of course, there are times when this tone is exactly what you want, but when you’re trying to appeal to people who are feeling vulnerable, jokes may alienate consumers rather than be seen as endearing.
Brand communication that serves best is succinct, informative and genuine. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s honest – blurring the lines, or making claims that you don’t intend to remain true to, is not likely to be forgiven or forgotten. If you’ve advised consumers that you’re donating a certain percentage of your profits, make sure you do so. So, if there’s even the slightest chance that you’re not going to be able to follow through, don’t make a claim in the first place.
Sometimes, it’s not the message that matters – it’s the medium. Naturally, there’s a hashtag for this: #StopHateForProfit. Suffice to say, if companies like Coca-Cola, Honda and Unilever are saying ‘no thanks’ to Facebook because of its policies around hate speech, there’s a good case for considering how an appearance on social media platforms might impact your brand’s image. Interestingly the criteria for considering media channels is shifting; it is becoming more and more about the brand fit (ideologies and philosophies) and not only about how effectively brands can reach their target audience.
Finally, the old adage about being able to tell a lot about people from how they treat the waiter holds true for organisations, too – although, in this case, consumers are looking at how you treat your staff. It’s all very well to promise to work towards the greater good, but if you’re retrenching, forcing pay cuts and generally not caring about your staff, it doesn’t matter how many entities are benefiting from your actions. After all, charity begins at home.
The golden rules: marketing and brand communication, like everything else, is likely to be changed through this pandemic. Those brands that seek to embody the values that we have increasingly come to cherish – like kindness – are expected to survive, so long as these are reflected within the context of existing brand essence and values. People will always remember who was in their corner during a crisis, while those that showed true colours, which turned out to be less than appealing, will feel the pinch in the pocket.