In Brands We Trust

How brands are stepping up to the responsibilities of government

Eli Vasilou, Iris

Group Creative Director


It’s a strange state of affairs when the person on the street knows more about the environmental approach of the loo roll they buy than of their new Prime Minister. Or who better understands their favourite ice cream’s stance on human rights than their local MP’s.

But with citizens’ growing frustration towards the ways government are tackling (or failing to tackle) societal, economic and environmental crises, brands are stepping up to the plate. 

During a summer where UK MPs actively voted against free school meals, companies including IKEA, Tesco and Morrisons have been vocal in their offers to provide children with free or subsidised lunches during the holidays.

With citizens’ growing frustration towards the ways government are tackling (or failing to tackle) societal, economic and environmental crises, brands are stepping up to the plate.

Eli Vasiliou, Group Creative Director at Iris

In the US, brands are stepping in to support staff after the overturning of the Roe vs Wade legislation in the US, funding out of state travel for employees who need abortions.

Clothing brand Patagonia is actively protecting democracy by recruiting election poll workers to ensure ‘safe, fair and efficient elections’. And, just last month, they announced they’ll be donating all profits - a casual $100m a year - towards tackling climate change.

Brand purpose is a divisive topic. Unquestionably, it’s a trend that’s gained huge traction over recent years and the backlash is in force. It’s reasonable to conclude the earnestness of brand purpose has contributed to the decline of humour in advertising – sorely missed by many. And brand purpose work unfairly dominates creative awards shows. It’s harder than ever for an ad to be recognised for its effectiveness  –  y’know, actually selling stuff – when up against tear jerkers tackling the big issues.

This has created a lingering sense of ennui around what “purpose marketing” actually means, and whether it’s something that we bother with at all?

Yet, when done right, taking a stand can be a powerful boost for brands. Consumers are demanding ever-higher ethical standards. And the absence of leadership from traditional structures has created a vacuum, opening opportunities for commercial organisations to benefit from ‘doing the right thing’.

So, how can brands get it right?

Make acts before ads

Consumers have never been more switched on, or so closely connected. Their bullshit detectors are set to high alert, and there’s nothing that triggers a Twitter pile-on like the whiff of hypocrisy.

So before opening the door to purpose marketing, brands need to get their house in order. Treating their employees, partners and the planet with decency is the first, critical step, and brands bypass this at their peril.

The danger is this caution can be paralysing. The fear of bad PR is real, but we must not pitch for perfection – it will never come. If you’re heading in the right direction, you should sit comfortably in the knowledge that the perception of risk can be outweighed by the potential good.

Find your new USP - your ‘Unique Selling Purpose’

Brands will never find their cause by hitching to the latest band-wagon. They need to look inwards to find that special, ownable thing; the way they operate, the way they incentivise and reward their staff, the unique place their product has in consumers’ lives, or simply (and bravely) embracing their natural, earned place in culture. This then becomes the springboard for that unique purpose they can rightly champion.

A fantastic example of ‘unique selling purpose’ can be found in the Timpson brand. A family firm boasting ‘great service by great people’, they’ve made a policy of actively employing ex-offenders. Of the 1,500 employed by the brand, just four have returned to prison. That’s real purpose and positive action, and again, poses a challenge to state policy on crime, with founder James Timpson publicly condemning the idea of ex-offenders working in a ‘chain-gang’ in high visibility vests as no more than a government PR stunt.

Keep it real

Colour-washing – green, blue, pink or all the colours of the rainbow (hello, pride month!) – is where brand purpose can go horribly wrong. Hopefully, most brands have long given up the performative re-colouring of their logos, but there will be a growing demand from consumers for brand honesty as we move towards a looming recession.

People warm to brands that are frank with them. A masterclass in both content and tone, recent customer emails from Octopus CEO Greg Jackson about the energy crisis are full of the level of detail, compassion and helpfulness that could set a benchmark for a PM’s address to the nation. It’s an odd set of circumstances when – in a cost of living crisis – we receive more comfort and reassurance from the supplier about to sting us, than from those in power, tasked with protecting our interests. 

To have the confidence to be transparent, brands need to collaborate with experts who can set them up for success. From charities to community groups to academic institutions, there are true partnerships to be made that set brands on the path towards real change.

If our governments won’t do it, our brands will.

Guest Author

Eli Vasilou, Iris

Group Creative Director


Eli, a talented Creative Director, has been with Iris for 14 years and has made an impact on numerous client’s businesses. She has a passion for ensuring brands have a positive impact on people's lives. Her Starbucks ‘What’s your name?’ campaign won multiple awards, including a Gold Cannes Lion for Creative Strategy and D&AD Pencil, in 2021. She’s delivered integrated campaigns for clients including Barclaycard, Original Source and Carex, and has creatively led accounts including Haven Holidays, Nectar, Starbucks (UK & EMEA) and most recently, abrdn, launching their new “Power of Investment’ brand platform.

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