Bob Dylan said it right when he sang The Times They Are A-Changin’. Today, if brands want to win consumers it’s not enough to be visually pleasing, or endorsed by celebrities, or nicely and neatly boxed. They need to speak truth. Gareth May welcomes you to the post-cool era.

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the holy trinity of fun, right? Yet we’re fast approaching an age where the first two carry little weight. We love stories of Ozzy Osbourne snorting ants and Pete Doherty threatening to throw music journos out of moving cars. What came first, the music or the madness? We’re guessing it’s the drugs.

But not all rock stars have relied on being off their rocker in order to turn heads. American punk band, Minor Threat, were not only pioneers in the DIY music scene, they were also credited with starting the straight edge movement; a lifestyle without alcohol, drugs, or even sex. It’s an eclectic club. We’re talking Zack de la Rocha, vocalist for Rage Against the Machine, and Metallica frontman James Hetfield, to name just two.

When The Verve sang ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, it could’ve applied to anything, and today brands are getting on-board with a straight edge approach too – with many mass market, big brands appropriating the post cool ideal.

Growth of the conscientious consumer

Ethical consumerism is a trend across the board, from slow fashion, to clean labels, to sustainable farming. A survey from EY found that while only 5% of over-55s would pay an extra 20% for an ethically-sourced product, 34% of 16-24-year-olds would pay it no problem.

According to a Euromonitor report on consumer behaviour for 2017, this new generation of consumers (which includes ‘Clean Lifers’ who believe that their purchase choices genuinely influence the planet positively) seek ‘real’ products over material gain. In the era of digital sharing, these tech-savvy and aware, or even woke, consumers don’t just seek brands with ethical credentials; they actively support and participate in discussions and campaigns around them on platforms such as Instagram and Twitter. And when they fuck up, they call them out with ‘Hashtag activism’ too.

“We stand up for the cause and those people who don’t understand it, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game.”

— Patrick Söderlund, EA chief creative officer

To survive in this new world, brands are fast learning that standing up and supporting something has currency. Take UK cosmetics brand Illamasqua. They snapped up transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf as their new face after Bergdorf had been fired by L’Oreal for commenting on race and gender. And earlier this year when EA faced a backlash for putting a woman on the cover of war game Battlefield V – with the #NotMyBattlefield hashtag – EA chief creative officer Patrick Söderlund told media: “We stand up for the cause… those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game.”

“It’s not about being a girl, it’s not about being a boy. It’s about being free to explore your individuality; celebrating who you are today, and who you want to be tomorrow.” Illamasqua is a beauty brand with a voice, and encourages you to have one too. We are not afraid to be provocative and talk about the complex issues that affect our generation – whether they be religion, race, gender or the environment. That’s why for our next campaign, we will be exploring gender. Featuring long-term Illamasqua collaborator and activist, @munroebergdorf, alongside ‘gender capitalist’, @raindovemodel. All will be revealed in November…. #humanup #gender #illamasqua #illamafia #genderisover

A strong stance, but how do you know if it’s paid off beyond the principles? The question isn’t just how do you act authentically? But how do you quantify such success?

When Nike launched a controversial advertising campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick — the player who started the kneel down protest for the national anthem that has since turned into a bitter war between the league and the President — it was called a PR disaster. And when the first wave of hashtag hate showed people defacing socks and sneakers it looked like the Kaepernick experiment had failed… and then came the news that online sales had grown by 31% and that Nike’s stock had jumped by 4% since the ad’s release. Its highest price in 2018. Proof that authenticity can lead to equity. 

Fumbling the ethics

But just like the aging rock star who gets off on the thrill of an AA meeting only to get in their car and swig on a bottle of Jim Beam, be careful if you get found out. Co-opting a fervent uprising or controversial cultural icon doesn’t always result in a touchdown. Brands can get it incredibly wrong.

Last year, when Pepsi launched an ad featuring Kendall Jenner giving a police officer a coke (a nod to the protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement), it got pulled after social media outrage (even Bernice King, son of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, tweeted and mocked the spot). As a result, the company released a statement that said, “We missed the mark.” And Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University, summed it up by saying that Pepsi were “late to the party” – resulting in a campaign that felt exploitative instead of inclusive.

And it can also backfire hideously for influencers, as this modern cautionary tale of one blogger’s Listerine sponsorship reveals. So who decides what is authentic and what is not?

As Pepsi learned, celebrity endorsements aren’t enough. As a brand you might be ethical and eco-aware; you also have to be wise. Being socially conscious is a good way to give a shit, sure. But working with an influencer in the hope of getting some of their followers to buy your goods is naïve. If your brand is bang on it in the same area an influencer bangs on about — be it clean labels or women’s rights — then cross-promotion can be a glorious thing (Nike have a history in making social statements, for instance). Get it wrong and it can be catastrophic.

How does a small brand make sure its genuine credentials ring true and cut through a growing cynicism? Firstly, there are different kinds of influencers. According to a study from Experticity, 82% of consumers are more likely to listen to recommendations from micro-influencers than anything else. These influencers may have fewer followers (around 10,000) than online celebrities, but they’re also less risky – i.e. there’s little chance that they’ve already ‘sold out’, meaning their following will be less cautious and more engaged.

“Being socially conscious is a good way to give a shit, sure. But working with an influencer in the hope of getting some of their followers to buy your goods is naïve.”

Get on board with this network and the rewards can be startling. Take Ethicus, the makers of hand-woven organic cotton sarees. They’ve relied on this digital community to build their brand, whilst also co-opting like-minded campaigns (such as #SixYardsAnd365Days, which successfully revived the fading art of weaving in India). In over two years of social media investment they’ve gone from three measly members to 25,000 global members — but synergy isn’t easy to find, you have to know where to look for it.

Sites such as the Ethical Brand Directory help the conscious consumer track down items in the UK that are ethical and sustainable; and Ethical Influencers is a digital community set up to tell the stories of sustainable brands and help them connect with clean-eating podcasters, ethical Instagrammers, and zero waste vloggers. Other sites offer consultancy and “one-to-one with brands” to help them develop a marketing strategy and “grow their impact”. Where does it end?

Influencers may write blogs covering everything from zero waste underwear or use their platform to post photos encouraging people to clean up beaches, but they don’t influence a brand’s inward culture. That’s down to the brands themselves. And there are other gatekeepers for that too.

New gatekeepers of cool

B Corp certification is the 21st century benchmark for authenticity, value and ethics in business; in their own words, they exist “to inform and inspire people who have a passion for using business as a force for good in the world”. But what is the value of certifying this way? And what does it bring to process and practice?

Matt Hocking is a B Corp UK Ambassador and the founder of Cornwall-based design studio Leap, a “graphic design studio with environment in mind”; one of only nine UK, and 22 European, businesses that are B Corp certified. In simple terms, he says B Corp is beneficial because it’s a stamp of approval, something that says, yes, we “walk the talk”.

“B Corp shows you how proactive you’re being. It’s more than having a mark that says, ‘We do good stuff.’ It makes us think about how to be better, day on day, year on year.”

Matt Hocking, B Corp UK Ambassador

“When we started out people would say, ‘What makes you green? What makes you ethical? Where’s the proof?’ So we started recording how far we travelled, how much waste we created; we benchmarked ourselves against ourselves to work out the carbon cost. It was hard work.”

When B Corp came to the UK in 2015, Hocking says it was “holistic, it wasn’t just saying we’ve done some recycling” – it was about environmental authenticity, how you interact with your supply chain, how you treat your workers, and it streamlined that self-imposed process and exceeded Hocking’s imagination in doing so.

“B Corp shows you how proactive you’re being,” explains Hocking. “It’s more than having a mark that says, ‘We do good stuff.’ It actually makes us think about how to be better, day on day, year on year. When you invest in your people and your planet there’s a higher level of resilience to your business; the way you utilize your funds and your staff and resources are much more thought about, far more considered.”  

There are also practical benefits too: Leap work with like-minded champions of change all over the world and they don’t have to run checks on potential collaborators because it’s been done for them. There’s also a rigidity of the workforce, because workers are not treated like a commodity, they feel valued (something Hocking says really matters, especially when you’ve been laid off four times like he has). Then there’s the more obvious networking bonuses such as a reduction of fees when working with other B Corp members, and shared resources too.

“There’s a complete shift in consciousness and I think we’ll get to the stage where it’s normal to invest in a triple bottom line business instead of a bottom line business,” says Hocking. “A business that cares about people, the planet, and profit. That’s the future.”

Put down the beer and the cigarettes, a new kind of cool is here.

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