How 2020 Shaped Brand Activism

By Bailey Chenevert

At the beginning of the year, no one could have predicted the lifestyle changes that became ordinary during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who could have guessed that face masks would become regular fixtures on key hooks in homes all over the world? Or that bidets would practically become an American household staple in the face of widespread toilet paper shortages? 

After seven months of pandemic living in the United States, these once unprecedented happenings are no longer noteworthy. We’ve heard it over and over again – the world is changing and there are endless new normals. Some of us may be thinking, so what? Politicians are still untrustworthy, the planet is still warming and infection rates are still climbing. 

But there’s hope for how the pandemic will change our future. Research is starting to show that the way we purchase in pandemonium could create lasting change on national and global issues; by influencing the way brands interact with society, our evolving spending habits could be changing the world. 

Edelman, a global communications firm, publishes a report on brand trust every year. This year’s report, Brands Amidst Crisis, showed stark changes in brand trust from the beginning of the year. Not surprisingly, consumption and brand trust is nearly unrecognizable now compared to before the pandemic. What is surprising are the specific changes and what they mean for the future. 

In the report, a diverse sample of more than 8,000 people from eight countries answered questions about their consumption habits and spending motivations. Some major takeaways are how values have changed and how brands most effectively gain trust. Consumers now care less about looking successful or trendy, and more about family time and helping others. These new values were reflected in what makes brands appealing. Respondents rated brands that project success, taste and adventure less important, and brands that put consumer safety first and care more for people than profit as more important than last year. 

In short, brand activism is becoming increasingly more important to spenders. Consumers are savvy to the idea that they vote with their wallets, and prefer shopping with brands that align with their values.

An example Edelman used is the marketing campaign “Take Out Hate” by Japanese food company Ajinomoto. The campaign encouraged diners to order takeout from local Asian restaurants. Because these restaurants faced racial discrimination and lost business at the start of the pandemic, “Take Out Hate” addressed pressing societal issues like racism and xenophobia, while increasing Ajinomoto’s sales. 

It’s not a new idea that consumers can inspire change as supporters or boycotters of large corporations. Because companies prioritize profits, the more lucrative it is to take a stand on societal issues, the more likely brands are to do so. And the research shows consumerism is trending in just that direction. Edelman has reported the rise of belief-driven purchasing for several years, and other reports echo their findings. 

Because concerns of personal health and societal unrest skyrocketed during the pandemic, brands that alleviate fears are now four times more trustworthy than others according to the report. With the expectation that brands should ease personal fears, more consumers want them to be activists.

However, a threat to tackling global issues is the possibility that brands successfully “trustwash” their products and services. Edelman’s 2019 report said it best: 

While societal trust is an accelerant to purchase, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned that brands are taking victory laps on social issues without actually effecting any change. This “trustwashing” phenomenon is confirmed by 56 percent of global respondents who agree that brands are using a stance on social issues as a marketing ploy, and 53 percent who believe brands are less than truthful when talking about their impact on society. 

As noted in our Greenwashing guide, corporations that recognize the financing power of activism can benefit from appearing to affect change while enforcing policies and procedures that do the opposite. The good news is that the more wary consumers are of trustwashing, the less likely corporations are to get away with it. While politicians are still untrustworthy, the planet is still warming and infection rates are still climbing, growing research like Edelman’s shows that consumers in this pandemic are nothing if not wary.  

Bailey Chenevert is a freelance journalist and guest editorial contributor for Cluey Consumer. As a recent 2020 college graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Bailey supplemented her studies as both a research assistant and a student editor at La Louisiane. Bailey is passionate about impartial reporting on consumerism and the impacts that fashion brands have on our modern world. 

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