2016. The year of change. The year of seismic shifts in global socio-politics, precipitated by 2 of the most momentous consumer votes in history.

I’m not commenting on the individual votes and which side of the political spectrum you sit on. But I am interested in the impact that it has for brands and more specifically, brand purpose.

We all know how important brand purpose has become. Seemingly every company, every brand is investing millions to determine their take on their social purpose and how they can make society and the world better.

And with good reason.  Because it matters.

It matters particularly for the much vaunted Millennial – now the largest purchasing generation in the US. You no doubt all know the statistics, but just to emphasise the point, according to a Huff Post article, more than 85% of millennials correlate their purchase decisions to the responsive efforts companies are making.

As to be expected, many of these purposes are built on the same internal principles & values that companies themselves espouse – respect, equality, diversity, tolerance… (feel free to shout ‘house’ at any point).

But the reality of both of these votes, is that they have unleashed many behaviours challenging, if not directly opposing, these values. The debates have unfortunately been chequered with examples of intolerance. Of a lack of respect. Of a vilification of others.

And this has created a challenging time both for society and brands.

You probably saw the news late last year that LEGO announced they have no plans for future promotional plans with the Daily Mail ‘in the foreseeable future’, following a thread that went viral on Facebook calling out perceived disparity between LEGO’s perception of inclusion and equality, with some of the more divisive and vitriolic commentary that has appeared in the Mail.

And you may well have watched Stop Funding Hate’s film, where they contrast the supermarket and department stores recent Christmas adverts filled with messages of love, tolerance and generosity to all, with the divisive messages appearing in the right-wing media – and again call on those stores to end their advertising with them.

The issue at heart here is one of consistency. Consistency between what brands say…and what they do.

The very essence of brand purpose is to lead. It is to take a stance and say ‘come with us – this is what we believe’. To not only talk – but to also walk.

In the past, these purposes have rarely been too controversial, as they were built on base principles that we took (perhaps naively?) as almost universally accepted and agreed with.

But when circumstances change to suggest that this is no longer the case, what happens? Should we merely accept it – or push back against it?

As many have been at pains to point out, proper brand purposes aren’t words on a page. It isn’t just a slogan to make you feel better. It has to drive everything you do. Everything. Even if that makes you feel uncomfortable.

One of the most popular reactions to these results has been to point out that the ‘liberal consensus’ have too readily shut down different & controversial views – telling people that it is outrageous and wrong, rather than engaging in proper debate.

And there is a lot of merit in this. But does that mean that the alternative is to just sit idly by – pushing your own message, but staying silent when there are things at odds with your world view?

In my opinion, absolutely not. Belief that isn’t followed up by conviction in action, is hardly belief. When it comes to brands, it risks damaging already perilous trust and making it look like a thin veneer, that at the first sight of controversy, recedes into the darkness at the fear of upsetting people.

Is it really acceptable just to cheerlead the positive behaviours, without calling the negative ones? Is it acceptable for brands that are pushing for greater female equality and respect, to be silent when it comes to responding to the often at times misogynistic elements of the US election? Is it acceptable for brands who celebrate the diversity of globalisation and different ethnicities, to sit in the shadows when faced with some of the racist backlash we’ve seen against migration?

If a brand is serious about living its purpose, then I don’t think so.

I'd like to share one example that I think shows the way. In Mexico, Corona has been running a campaign called Defronterizate (meaning ‘break your barriers’), celebrating “The Mexicans who have broken boundaries and seek to get ahead.

In this context, the controversial Trump plan to build the border wall is of incredible relevance – and rather than them shy away from such a controversial subject, their latest TV ad tackles it head on. They have taken the subject and elevated it beyond just a political statement, instead talking about the internal walls we give ourselves that hold us back:

It’s a message that engages, without preaching. That stands up for what it believes, without being aggressive. That challenges without excluding.

We know only too well that brands don’t live in isolation. They are part of culture – both reflecting and creating it. Brand purpose isn’t a one way street – allowing you to reflect the nice and easy parts of society that we like, but ignoring the bits that we don’t.

The best brands have edges. They have beliefs. They stand up for themselves. Everywhere. Some people won’t like that – but they do it anyway because it is right. It is about authenticity and consistency.

Now is the litmus test for brand purpose. It is crunch time. It might be scary and the risks are high, but if we are serious about living and breathing purpose, we can’t hide in the shadows.

With thanks to Timothy Voges for the image