Social Mixer 2024 Singapore
Opinion: The age of brand cynicism

Opinion: The age of brand cynicism

share on

Do you trust the brand of food you buy to ensure they have your best nutritional interests at heart? How much do you trust the pharma company to have your long-term health and well-being as a topmost priority? What about that financial institution with which you place your hard-earned money – do you trust them to do what’s right while delivering the best returns on your capital?

If your answer is no to any or all of the above questions, there’s a high chance you are not alone. We are entering an age of brand-cynicism, with 66% of consumers in the United Kingdom not trusting brands, according to a survey by Clear Channel and JCDecaux last year. Along with high brand cynicism comes high expectations from these entities. A 2020 global survey by Ford Motors revealed that more than two-thirds (67%) of adults have higher expectations for brands than they did in the past.

The Internet has enabled consumers to be more discerning as they learn more easily and quickly about companies, whether on their business ventures or ESG efforts.

On one hand, companies see the internet as a boon to more cheaply and widely reach out to a larger consumer base. On the other hand, they will also need to grapple with an increasingly sceptical consumer group, especially Gen Z consumers and the younger demographic.

Consequently, every new launch is now perceived as more than a product, but also an expression of brand beliefs.

Research firm Forrester also reported last year that almost half (47%) of respondents associate the social, environmental, and political views of CEOs with those of the businesses they lead. A further 43% of American adults lean towards companies that share similar social, environmental or political values.

With these trends in mind, organisations can no longer sit in silence and wait for the social crisis of the week to pass them by while they go untouched on the sidelines. Indeed, with heightened sociopolitical consciousness among consumers, the branding world of the future is going to be an increasingly tricky space to navigate.

When the Russia-Ukraine conflict unfolded, countless brands scrambled to withdraw from the Russian market in a bid to show solidarity for Ukraine. The global sportswear retailers Adidas and Nike quickly closed their stores and halted online sales in Russia; the latter further released a statement condemning the attacks on Ukrainian civilians.

But brands that simply jump on the bandwagon must do so without coming off as insincere.

Social efforts must not be marketing/PR-driven

When organisations centre their social efforts on marketing and public relations, it is at best perceived as opportunistic and signals "corporate wokeism" — shallow efforts to be seen as socially progressive only when it will burnish the brand.

At worst, it becomes a numbers game, where brands capitalise on events such as Pride Month or Earth Day to drive profit for themselves at little or no benefit to the causes they latch onto.

A business should support a cause because it’s the right thing to do and because they believe in it and not to curry favour with millennial customers nor hop on social justice bandwagons to stay relevant, and definitely not to drive marketing numbers.

The better-informed consumers of today will quickly see through businesses leveraging a social cause for their own advantage. And in a time of viral tweets and high shareability, businesses who are thinking of a social campaign should engage in some corporate introspection, lest they face the danger of a boycott. Make no mistake that double standards, if there are traces of any, will be called out.

For consumer giants such as Procter and Gamble and automobile manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, June is a month of rainbow logos and #pride hashtags. But some have questioned if the move is superficial and performative since such efforts are only limited to more culturally accepting regions like in the West and not for the Middle Eastern audiences.

It is understandable why companies would not want to rock the boat in cultures that do not condone such causes, but make no mistake that consumers will call you out on this varied approach and question its efficacy if such advocacy is absent in the areas it is most needed.

Deliberate scenario planning to map out these possibilities with accompanying communications strategies will be essential if companies do still decide to proceed. For starters, companies could be more upfront about this approach from the onset, stating that they are aware of this discrepancy but that they are adopting a more gradual and sustainable approach in such territories.

Consider the media landscape

Even the media, which have been able to amplify the stories for brands, are overwhelmed, sceptical and fear being inadvertently used for nefarious means — such as greenwashing, which has become a topic ubiquitous globally. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore has emphasised the need to understand and tackle climate change while mitigating the risk of greenwashing.

“Drowning in it” is how one journalist described the amount of ESG content received. Indeed, organisations need to consider if their announcements are necessary, genuine and worthy to be written about and read by thousands.

Social efforts must be holistic

Go to any global brand’s website today and you can most likely find, in their footer in fine print, a section for sustainable practices, and what their mega-corporation is doing to fight climate change.

Most will focus on their plastic use or carbon footprint. Not so common, however, is a section on social causes: How a brand’s product is being made, if sweatshops are involved, how materials are sourced, and the conditions of the warehouses where their products are carefully put together for mass distribution.

ESG measures, taking a stand, making pledges — all of these initiatives must be holistic, for we live in a highly intertwined world, where the economy, society, policy and the environment all overlap and interact with each other in complex and intimate ways. Businesses must consider all of these in tandem.

The way forward is understanding

In 2019, research from The Economist Intelligence Unit found that 76% of Gen X and Millennials in the UK say "it’s increasingly important to consider ESG factors when investing". While moulding a business around ESG principles has become a lucrative business, the future depends on corporations and government bodies understanding that they have a large and genuine part to play.

In the future, brands cannot simply slap a rainbow filter over their logos or promise that only some carbon emissions will be cut. Businesses need to truly, genuinely want to better society and the world. When a business accepts and understands that they have a duty to contribute positively, that sincerity will shine through their campaigns.

The writer is Malminderjit Singh, senior account director and content lead at Hume Brophy Asia.


share on

Follow us on our Telegram channel for the latest updates in the marketing and advertising scene.

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top marketing stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's marketing development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window