Just How Many Brands Have Become Better Corporate Citizens?

Polonius said it best in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To Thine Own Self Be True.”  Be loyal to your best interests and to those of others. This line holds true today and means that people--as well as brands-- should be honest with themselves and do the right thing.

Being true is generally used to describe authenticity and honesty as the essential attributes to being successful. Could Shakespeare have been advising early advertising agencies when they were creating messages on primitive billboards?

There has been a lot written about authenticity in advertising over the years and how brands need to be social advocates to be relevant. This especially holds true when marketing to millennials. Brands have always recognized that they need to become better corporate citizens but has this become a widespread practice? More consumers today are taking a brand’s mission and activism into account when making decisions about what to buy.

I can cite several great examples of authentic behavior:



Nike: The campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick sent a strong message to Nike's core customers: Millennials and younger men. Two-thirds of the company's sneaker customers are younger than 35. Nike communicated to them in a way that is authentic, culturally relevant and emotionally engaging. The campaign increased core customers' loyalty to Nike. It also raised awareness for the brand. Nike believed in something, even if it meant sacrificing everything. In this case, it paid off.

Patagonia: Patagonia’s public advocacy and support for ecological sustainability earned it a lot of brand love—to the tune of $600 million in revenue. They give 1% of their revenue to small environmental grassroots groups fighting to protect the planet.

Dove: They have been able to change public perception by authentically championing women’s empowerment and challenging narrow conceptions of beauty. This is an example of a relatively low risk way to align with a cause.

Of course there are other examples as well.

Brand authenticity is created in the confluence between a brand and what its consumers want. It is an expression of how a brand transcends the pursuit of profit, whether by keeping customers informed about a product’s ingredients to enable healthy choices or by giving them more time to spend with friends and family through simplification of their daily life. Consumers of all ages want brands to respect their intelligence and alleviate their anxiety about misinformation by presenting themselves honestly and consistently.

In the early ‘90s while at Chiat/Day, I was privileged to be a part of Jay Chiat’s Agency of the Future task force. Our mission was to create a vision for what the agency of the future might look like and how it would act. We landed on the idea that agencies need to help brands manage their total role in society. This meant helping them become better corporate citizens; helping them develop philanthropic and pro bono initiatives. It was like corporate reputation management on steroids. While it was never fully activated in the U.S., it was aspirational and ahead of its time.

With the advent of programmatic media buying and issues around brand safety, it has become even more critical that we, as media agencies, are authentic with our recommendations and how we execute them. We must ensure we are making emotional connections between brands and consumers, using contextual relevance to resonate and finding environments that will encourage receptivity to our clients’ messages.

In an age where not only consumer trust has fallen but polls show that clients have mistrust for agencies, it’s imperative that agencies apply authenticity to their own practices. This can be accomplished by practicing full transparency, abiding by strong values, finding ways to help clients become better corporate citizens, empowering people to think differently and encouraging invention.

Bravery and risk taking also must come into play and while it may not please everyone, it will help brands break through the clutter. However, any level of brilliance and courage could easily be undermined by an uninspired media plan; and no ‘brand truth’ campaign should rely solely on an optimization algorithm.

It’s ironic that there is so much talk about authenticity today considering it was so proudly proclaimed centuries ago.


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