Answer the Call

What the world once trusted, it now doubts. Government is now the least-trusted institution. The mainstream media has lost its monopoly on authority. Societal and economic fears are dominating the conversation, especially concerns about job loss, immigration restrictions, and the rapid pace of innovation. The chasm between views held by the elites and the mass population continues to widen. People no longer believe that institutions will stand up for them, and they have low regard for leaders, especially heads of state and CEOs. The net is deep concern about the future and a real belief that the system is failing them.

One place people are turning to for solutions is brands — 51 percent say that brands can do more to solve social ills than government. They expect brands to stand by them, to rush into the breach of trust. There is the possibility of commitment well beyond the classic purchase funnel. The world wants more from brands, and consumers are asking a simple question: “Are you with me?”

Our 2017 Edelman Earned Brand study, completed this spring in 14 countries with 14,000 consumers across five continents, concludes that people are buying on the basis of beliefs. Fifty-seven percent of people now buy or boycott a brand based on its position on social or political issues. Half of all consumers consider themselves to be belief-driven buyers: 25 percent carry strongly-held beliefs that they express through the brands they buy, while the other 25 percent, depending on the issue and brand, will change their purchase behavior based on the brand’s stand. Most of all, these belief-driven buyers will not tolerate silence; nearly two-thirds of them said they will not buy a brand if it remains quiet on an issue they believe it has an obligation to address.

These belief-driven buyers are younger, more affluent and most active in dynamic markets such as China and India. And they will act, with two-thirds reporting that they bought a brand for the first time because it took a position on a controversial issue. Around half of them say they would be more likely to exclusively buy a brand that speaks out versus one that doesn’t, stay loyal to it, act as its advocate in criticizing competitors, and defend it in social spaces. Nearly a quarter of them say they will pay a price premium of 25 percent to buy on shared beliefs. What your brand believes in and acts on is an opportunity for business.

Some brands are already taking this leadership opportunity. Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” idea connected the product with a series of discussions about racial and ethnic issues by people on opposite sides. We created a partnership between Heineken and the Human Library to open more worlds and see other points of view. Starbucks has acted more than just talked, by employing 10,000 refugees, 15,000 veterans and 4,000 urban youth.

Your brand’s communications and marketing must be action-led, authentic and relevant to memes and culture of the day. Peer-driven conversations are considerably more credible than statements by the company or celebrity spokespeople. And there is much greater belief in conversations with friends and family than in advertising. Brands that act before they talk win even stronger relationships.

In the face of innumerable challenges to brands — including the rise of local upstart and private label competitors, e-commerce demolishing distribution walls, the implosion of the TV advertising model—belief-driven buyers bring real opportunity. But brands must answer their call. When more than half of people are buying or boycotting based on their values, silence on today’s issues just isn’t an option.

The brands that don’t act on beliefs will be cast into a dark place we call “No Brand’s Land.” In No Brand’s Land, you miss the chance to connect with people on their deep beliefs — the strongest ties in any relationship — and to bring new dimension to your marketing beyond “purpose.” It’s a danger zone where people are more likely to become indifferent to your brand.

The question is not: Should your brand act? It’s: When and how will you?

Richard Edelman is president and CEO, Edelman.
Mark Renshaw is global chair of Brand, Edelman.