I was talking to a friend from the industry the other day over, rather surprisingly, a cup of coffee. We were speaking about the changes our profession is going through. ‘These days,’ said my friend, ‘I often feel like I’m working for the United Nations or some NGO in the social sector.’
I echoed his sentiment.
With all this buzz about the ‘Purpose Economy’, ‘purpose led’ marketing and consequently purpose led communication sometimes one feels that advertising has swung, pendulum like, from one extreme to the other. From being the oil that lubricated the wheels of Capitalism, to, all of a sudden, becoming the (brand dictated) voice of the underprivileged and downtrodden.
Suddenly the gin sodden Mad Men seem to have been, in Calvin’s immortal phrase, transmogrified into holier than thou do-gooders sliding roses down the barrels of the establishment’s AK-47s.
While advertising professionals of my vintage might bemoan the disappearance of the good old commercial that just sold the product in an engaging and interesting manner and didn’t pretend to solve the problem of world hunger, the fact remains that the world has changed while we have been busy quaffing our expense account single malts.
Advertising is changing because the consumer has changed. The current generation of youngsters, Gen Z as they are called, are a very different breed of consumers. In the words of Alfonso Cuaron, the Oscar winning director of ‘Roma’ and several other masterpieces, ‘Gen Z wants luxury. But they also want to do the right thing.’ And that is exactly how they want their brands to behave. So you can be a brand of athletic footwear and make the sexiest shoes on the planet, but if you make them in a sweatshop in China using child labour, Gen Z will look askance at you. You need to get your act together before they will allow themselves to be seen on social media wearing your product.
Culture shapes consumption. And the market has no choice but to follow. Advertising, therefore, has had to charge huffing and puffing, chasing after the market in order to catch up. It is my conjecture that the confusion our profession is feeling at this point is because we’re a tad out of breath.
I’m at Cannes as I write this and everywhere I look I see brands doing cause led communication. There is so much work on the LGBTQ subject that a cynic has come up with the term ‘Pinkwashing.’ And, unfortunately enough, there might be grounds for cynicism. A sense one gets is that some brands are borrowing equity from causes and issues in order to profit from them. But consumers are smart. They will soon ask whether those brands are giving back to those causes. Gen Z has come in-built with a highly sensitive ‘bullshit meter’. They can see through subterfuge faster than previous generations and are impervious to the advertising hard sell. What they are looking for, above all, is authenticity. And that is where brands have to work the hardest. No one can fake it anymore.
In order to resonate with the consumer of today, brands need to harness the union of creativity and social impact. Authenticity of purpose and a common goal is going to be the glue that will bind consumers to brands in the future.
There are brands that are a little ahead of the curve in this regard.
‘Patagonia’, an outdoor apparel brand is a case in point. They ask their consumers to ‘buy less’ and even take back used clothing and gear, repair it and resell it at a discount. They have a huge loyal base of consumers who believe in their authenticity.
You know when your girlfriend said ‘don’t just say I love you, mean it.’
That’s what brands have to do now.