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How Marketers Can Overcome Purpose Paralysis


With almost half of large companies saying they have experienced ESG backlash and expect this to intensify, some corporates are going into purpose-related hibernation, rather than risk the perceived reputational damage of speaking out. But with consumers and employees shifting expectations, and with so many critical issues now requiring brand and business support, hibernation is not an option.

Research from purpose consultancy Revolt, "Poking The Bear," reveals that rather than getting trapped in a cycle of 'purpose paralysis', and pausing or abandoning purposeful marketing and communications, brands can make important progress by shifting their approach to bring more people with them and avoid backlash.

Our research showed just how much people's political views shape their attitudes to key purpose-related issues, such as climate change and LGBTQ+ equality. Importantly though, the research also showed the extent to which simple changes to marketing language can significantly reduce the political polarization and increase unity in attitudes towards those issues.

More than half of US consumers (58 percent) want brands to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose, but we've seen that progressive language in purpose marketing and advertising is dividing right and left voters by up to 32 percent. However, this gap can be closed to just 7 percent by making changes to the language so the messaging is more centrist.

Revolt found that sexuality and gender identity rights is the most politically polarizing issue in the US today, with just 27 percent of right-leaning voters ranking this issue as important versus 64 percent of left-leaning voters. Climate change was the second most polarizing issue, with 45 percent of right-leaning respondents saying it was important, compared with 81 percent of left-leaning respondents. With such polarizing consumer views on these key issues, it's not surprising that a growing number of brands are simply avoiding 'poking the bear' and are focusing attention on what they see as less contentious causes.

However, more "grizzly" issues can be "tamed" by careful, pragmatic shifts in language to align with universal values. Climate change was the second most polarizing issue from the research, with a polarization gap of nearly 40 percent, but by using 'centrist' language, the issue becomes much less polarizing and more important to respondents. For example, support for "the individual right to clean air and clean water," an issue adjacent to climate change, was the most unifying statement tested, with 85 percent of left-leaners and 78 percent of right-leaning voters in support. This is a polarization gap of just 7 percent.

Similarly, when phrased in the centrist language "securing a safe climate for your family's future," climate change becomes the fifth most important issue among all respondents. But with the more progressive frame of "fighting for climate justice for all" climate change falls to 17th place.

Across the full range of issues tested, not only did centrist language perform better with right-leaning respondents, it was also more appealing to those on the left. While progressive language may seem like a stronger articulation of the cause, it simply isn't supporting purposeful action to best effect.

But a successful purpose strategy is not just about understanding the bear you're poking or how to tackle your grizzlies with more centrist language. When you're going into "bear territory" you must also ensure that your brand has permission to play. We've all seen the negative examples of brands that have poked the bear and paid the price for making an unwelcome entrance. But brands that carefully earn their stripes, can thrive with a seemingly polarizing issue.

And, if you're poking the bear, plan for it to wake up. Brands that take calculated risks and plan for backlash are more likely to survive attacks unscathed. Don't run or stay silent. Stand your ground and practice de-escalation techniques to diffuse the tension.

Now is the right moment for brands to consider the steps they can take to ensure they continue to do purpose properly in a polarizing world. Assess whether you are "poking the bear" and as you think about this, ask yourself a few key questions: Was this a necessary industry-wide shake down? Can we use this moment to strengthen discipline and find more authenticity? Is our brand poking the bear? Do we want to stop or start?

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Peter Bardell is co-founder of Revolt.