How purpose has changed the CEO and the consumer in 2021

23 March 2021 4 min. read

Becky Willan, co-founder and CEO of Given, an agency for purpose-driven brands, shares her take on how the new post-Covid-19 world will change the world of individuals at opposite ends of the table – the CEO and the consumer.

The new CEO

Activism has been a growing trend amongst brands in the name of brand purpose, with some doing it better than others. Recent examples include Patagonia’s activist position in relation to the US elections. The brand created a line of shorts with “Vote the a**holes out” sewn inside its labels. And Nike has been increasingly building its brand activist credentials – with its most notable statement so far being its use of political activist Colin Kaepernick as a brand face.

In 2021, we expect to see brand activism continue, but a notable development will be that it is positioned in a much more personal way with individual CEOs standing behind the line taken by their brand.

How purpose-driven consumers are the world of the CEO

In Patagonia’s case for example, the ‘political shorts’ move was not something the marketing department were discussing, it was a statement which fit with the public stance of its founder. Patagonia’s founder and owner Yvon Chouinard, has been using the shorts phrase for years and last year, he urged Patagonia’s grassroots activists to ‘Vote the Arseholes Out’ in an open letter to defend the planet.

It forms part of the turbocharged purpose focus of the business which Chouinard himself initiated two years ago. Overnight he created the brand’s new mission statement: ‘We’re in business to save our home planet’. Chouinard’s approach is emblematic of a new breed of activist CEO – business leaders who are passionate about an issue or simply intent on leaving a positive mark on the planet. They aren’t afraid to stand for something, and to have their voice heard.

This was a burgeoning trend in 2020, with CEOs like IKEA’s Jesper Brodin committing boldly to a green revolution in business; "The only way we can exist as a business model tomorrow is to be sustainable, so it’s not about how we pay the premium to do it. It's the only way we can be the low-cost company of tomorrow.” 

At Given, we expect to see a fresh boldness amongst CEOs and brands when it comes to activism as a result of the pandemic. Businesses that have managed to evolve in ways they could not have imagined pre-2020 are emboldened and consumers are looking for brands who are committed to making things better.

The new consumer

At the same time, the pandemic has helped usher in and establish a new breed of consumer. More so than ever, there is a greater sense among consumers of the role businesses need to play in the world. There is now far less to hide behind, and Covid-19 has shone a light on how brands behave, not just what they talk about in terms of purpose. 

Consumers won't always choose to buy a brand simply because it is more purpose-led, but they may avoid or cancel one for not living up to the standards it communicates. For example when Oatly, a brand that had been quick to see the value of purpose-led messaging in its marketing, announced its newest investor was the Trump-linked Blackstone Group, consumers flooded to Twitter ‘cancelling’ the brand. The damage is unlikely to be long lasting, but demonstrates even the poster brands for purpose are under scrutiny. 

Cancel culture isn’t an internet phenomenon that will go away, it is reflective of citizens’ rising expectations around the world and the increased scrutiny that brands and businesses will face in 2021 and beyond. Another example was the uproar that swiftly followed the McDonald’s launch of its ‘Mc Plant’ meat-free range last year. Critics pointed out McDonald’s previous inaction on sustainability issues and the lack of a clear link between the launch of McPlant and its current sustainability plan. 

We expect purpose fails to be publicly denounced more intensely this year, not just because consumers are more interrogative, but because some brands will rush to join the purpose conversation without matching it with action. The events of 2020 mark a critical shift in people’s understanding of the role businesses play in society and consumers expect them to lead by example. We’ll continue to see more backlash against anything that suggests ‘purpose-washing’ this year and beyond.