The uncertainty of the last few months has reset the table. People around the world are re-assessing much about their lives in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the societal outcry around systemic racism following the senseless murder of George Floyd. 

People’s relationships with brands are shifting, and expectations and values are changing as well. To keep pace with or, even better, to accelerate through the current environment, brands need a North Star for change, a blueprint for action.  

“Purpose” is no longer enough. Brands must take action through advocacy. 


Trust Through Advocacy  

Trust today is the make or break difference in people’s relationships with brands. In the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust in 202070 percent of respondents say trusting a brand is more important today than in the past 

Merely communicating rational and emotional product benefits is now insufficient to build resilient and trusted brands. Today, people put a brand’s solving their personal problems (85 percent) and society’s problems (80 percent) ahead of enriching their lives (73 percent).  

Action through advocacy is key. As people around the world vote with their pocket (and their wallet), purpose needs to be about more than a beautiful ad with a resonant call to action. Advocacy begins with brand purpose, but the driver of brand equity now and in the future is our willingness to drive change. Brands that do will be rewarded with greater trust. Consider that brands that take action against racial injustice are four times more likely to gain trust than lose it, according to our 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brands and Racial Justice in America. Globally, in the wake of the pandemic, 81 percent of people expect brands to ‘do the right thing.’ 

Advocacy starts within a brand’s own walls. Globally, 78 percent of respondents expect brands to ensure their employees are protected against coronavirus; 90 percent want brands to protect the well-being and financial security of employees and suppliers; and nearly two-thirds of U.S. respondents expect brands to get their own house in order on racial justice in their diversity and inclusion standards, marketing communications and product pipelines.  


Acting With People 

Brands must go beyond understanding people to acting with people. By leveraging their investments in people-based data and analytics, brands can inform themselves about the causes their customers care about and act and respond swiftly in a complex and changing environment.   

Ajinomoto*, the largest producer of flavor-enhancer MSG, understood from a review of customer data its growth was blocked by decades-old, bogus theories about so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.  

Earlier this year, Ajinomoto successfully acted to demonstrate to the public that Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was no more than a myth—and even got it removed from the dictionary. Ajinomoto doubled down on advocacy in the wake of Covid-19, as Asian restaurants were shutting down at twice the rate of others. The advocacy platform #TakeOutHate refuted the lies and worked to drum up business on behalf of Ajinomoto’s most important customers. Click here to find out more and watch the campaign video.


Knocking Down Barriers

While brands have always worked on functional or emotional barriers, the opportunity today is to work to remove systemic barriers to people’s lives, health, safety and well-being. Brands must find new ways to actively advocate for the removal of cultural, systemic or institutional barriers. They are sure to hear from a new breed of activist consumer, who holds businesses to account and can use their voices to promote—or damage—a brand’s reputation. Seventy-seven percent of respondents say they have stopped buying from a company because it stayed silent on a social or political issue.  

Dove* has not stayed silent. In trying to understand the problems of Black women who used its hair-care product line made for them, the brand realized the problem was much bigger than making sure consumers understood the product. The bigger problem was rooted in racist remarks and behavior around hair that is a daily experience for millions of black women.   

Rather than just ‘shut up and make shampoo’ or putting out a statement of support, Dove used its leadership to act. It formed the CROWN coalition to advocate for changes in laws that enabled hair discrimination. Only then did Dove double down by helping to fund and promote an animated film, ‘Hair Love,” that helped to reinforce its actions. The film by Matthew Cherry, won an Oscar and the CROWN Coalition has gotten the law changed in seven states, making a direct impact on millions of lives.  

Brands need to live their purpose. The inspirational film or brand activation has its place, but we need to go farther through action. People are holding all institutions to a higher standard and brands are no different. Now is the time. We must advocate through action for our audiences. We must help to overcome systemic barriers. For the weeks and the decades to come, the bar is higher. We must act. 

Lee Maicon is global chief and innovation officer at Edelman.