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New Research Reveals How Consumers View Brand Purpose in 2020

What do consumers think about the role of businesses in 2020? Explore six mini-chapters, packed with insights from search, survey, and social data

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REPORTNew Research Reveals How Consumers View Brand Purpose in 2020

Introduction: Brand purpose in 2020

2020 has given business leaders plenty of reasons to panic.

The pandemic means that everyone is now in the business of saving lives – even marketers. The accompanying global economic downturn is causing widespread terror, and decisions must be made under crushing uncertainty. Black Lives Matter protests are highlighting the need to address structural racism, forcing execs to address difficult questions about diversity and inclusion. And all the while, the climate crisis continues to worsen.

Panic can give rise to knee-jerk reactions. And while fast action has certainly been needed this year, it’s easy to see how swiftly implemented initiatives may have run counter to businesses’ purported aims and values. After all, who gives a hoot about plastic waste when wrapping fruit and veg could help stop the virus spreading?

In the middle of a year already defined by chaos, brand purpose runs the risk of being left gathering dust in an office that no one’s currently working in. But, as we’ll be demonstrating in this report, this is not a good idea.

Back in March, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote: “It is in times of great disruption and uncertainty that our ability to stay grounded in our sense of purpose and remain true to our identity is of the utmost importance.”

It’s this grounding quality of brand purpose, coupled with an in-depth understanding of what consumers want and need, that will minimize the panic and guide businesses through the tough times.

In this report, we’ll be exploring consumer perceptions of brand purpose and related themes over six mini chapters. We’ll be using data from surveys (using Brandwatch Qriously), social (using Brandwatch Consumer Research), and search (using Google Trends).

Chapter 1: How profit became a dirty word

Profit may be a positive word for business leaders, but among consumers it has increasingly negative connotations.

Looking at a year’s worth of social media mentions of  words like “profit”, “profits”, and “profited”, and comparing volumes to the year before, negativity and negative emotions are trending upwards while positivity and joyful emotions are slipping downwards.

A common perception is that businesses only care about profit, at the expense of looking after their employees, their customers, and the planet.

Of course, the pursuit of purpose doesn’t mean abandoning the pursuit for profit. In fact, acting with purpose can result in more profit.

“Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose — in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.”
— Larry Fink, CEO at BlackRock

Consumers are actively hunting for brands that work towards goals that aren’t necessarily profit related.

Google search interest in ethical and sustainable brands

Source: Google Trends (100 score represents point in time with most search interest – all other scores are relative to this)

Being associated with favorable qualities is a good way to attract the purpose-conscious consumer. That said, these positive associations can’t be won easily.

Chapter 2: Consumers want brands to walk the talk

Qriously data shows that consumers strongly believe that a brand should operate according to its values and proactively make the world a better place. They’re far less concerned about more performative actions around those values, like getting press coverage or sharing statements about purpose.

For consumers, actions speak louder than words.

Example: #ChangeIsATeamSport

A great example of a brand putting work into purpose-driven initiatives is Adidas. Looking at Twitter mentions of the brand between July 2019 and July 2020, the biggest spike in conversation came from the launch of their #ChangeIsATeamSport campaign in January.

The campaign, which has seen Adidas collaborate with a number of different influencers, brands, and organizations, is helping inspire positive change in local communities around the world. It’s also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Superstar shoe.

The mega-stars involved (especially K-pop group Blackpink) have boosted awareness for the campaign, which puts team projects like Skateism and Curated by GIRLS in the spotlight.

Reception has been incredibly positive. Brandwatch emotion analysis found that an overwhelming number (over 90%) of the #ChangeIsATeamSport tweets were joyful.

But Adidas is by no means hiding the fact that they’re selling Superstar sneakers – it’s a big call to action on the campaign’s page. As Larry Fink says: “Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose.”

Chapter 3: What do consumers think about the role of businesses?

If actions are important, what are the actions that can help consumers believe your brand is making the world a better place?

We asked consumers what they think businesses should do/be.

Surprisingly, employee wellbeing, sustainability, and helping the most vulnerable came above ‘keeping prices as low as possible’. This indicates that even cash-strapped consumers recognize the value of businesses acting to better society and the planet.

This is a good time to point out that there are of course regional differences here. For example, in the US, ‘Keeps prices as low as possible’ was the second most popular answer. And in the UK, ‘Is anti-racist’ was the third most popular answer.

That said, all of the options listed (except ‘None of the above’) got at least 30% of global consumers’ support. This is a tall order – to achieve all of these would be a commendable feat – but it also shows that consumer expectations are high.

Chapter 4: How can brands best serve consumers in 2020?

This is a simple question with a complicated answer. After all, a brand’s purpose has to have some longevity to it for it to make sense. At the same time, consumer needs and preferences can be fickle. To address those needs and to live according to brand purpose requires no small amount of agility.

Let’s zoom in on what consumer needs and preferences look like at this point in 2020.

Consumer needs

A recent piece from Accenture noted a ‘Maslow shift’: “Self-actualization has given way to basic needs, and CEOs must pay close attention to, and act upon, the needs of employees and customers in real-time.”

In July 2020, we conducted a Qriously survey to look at consumer perceptions around brand purpose and the needs they have this year. Responses came from more than 7,000 consumers across the US, Mexico, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, Australia, and Singapore.

We asked respondents to pick five things they were most interested in or concerned about since the outbreak of Covid-19. The list we provided was loosely based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – focusing on both basic needs like food and shelter, but also ‘higher’ needs like fulfilling personal potential.

Our research concurs with the quote above from Accenture – there is certainly a focus on basic needs like personal health, financial security, and the wellbeing of family and friends. Meanwhile, things like career accomplishments and spirituality sit far further down the list of things consumers are most concerned about right now.

To quote Accenture again:

“Watch the Maslow shift carefully. Listen hard, and focus on human insights. Become an expert in detecting human signals, what they mean for your organization, and how you can respond at speed. This will drive a ferocious era of innovation—if you engage.”
— Accenture, "COVID-19: A brand. New. Purpose."

Consumer preferences

Consumer needs have shifted to more fundamental concerns. And their preferences when buying things have also changed.

In April, we asked consumers if a variety of values had become more or less important to them when buying things since the outbreak of Covid-19. In July, we asked again.

Now, consumers think that items being healthy and locally sourced are even more important than they were back in April (and numbers were fairly high then). Meanwhile, they’re even less likely now than in April to care about an item being branded. Loyalty to specific brands is in peril in 2020, and the picture is getting worse.

The most successful businesses of 2020 will be those that can marry their strong purpose with the needs, preferences, and desires of consumers. As we’ve shown above, those preferences and needs are continually changing – analyzing them must be an ongoing process, not a one-off.

Chapter 5: The responsibility of businesses towards consumers and employees

Covid-19 is the most pressing global issue of the year, and businesses are in a strange position within it. People are relying on their logistical competence, their messaging, and their safety measures more now than they could have previously imagined.

Trust in safety measures

Our Qriously survey found that consumers are more likely to trust business safety measures and employer safety measures than government safety measures to keep them safe.

This correlates with recent Edelman research, which found that consumers thought their employer was better prepared for the virus than their country and had high trust in their employer to respond effectively and responsibly.

Trust in information

Our Qriously research found that businesses are also on equal footing with the media in terms of trust around keeping people informed. Employers have a much bigger responsibility – people trust them more than the government to keep them up to date on developments.

This goes back to one of our earlier findings – that 74% of consumers agree that it’s important that a business treats its employees well. Keeping workers safe and well informed is not just the duty of employers, it’s what’s expected of them. Breaches of this fundamental understanding of the role of the employer, especially during dangerous times, are likely to be harshly punished by consumers and commentators.

Chapter 6: What will brand purpose look like in 2021?

The future is very uncertain, but consumers are able to give us some clues as to what will be important to them going into next year.

We asked consumers what they wanted to see businesses do in 2021.

Covid-19 measures

There is clearly an expectation that Covid-19 will continue to be a threat into next year – 71% of consumers want businesses to keep up with safety measures beyond 2020. Around half that number also want businesses to continue giving money to Covid-19 relief causes in 2021.


Meanwhile, 57% of consumers want businesses to focus on sustainability and the environment more in 2021. This is, perhaps, in acknowledgement of how sustainable initiatives were not the key priority early in 2020. We’ll be exploring this further, especially in regard to plastic waste, in an upcoming report.

Black Lives Matter

And 26% of consumers want businesses to continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This number is 37% in the US.

While this may seem low, recall what we said above about how consumers want action more than they want performative indications that a business supports something. A business stating they support the BLM movement is one thing, but acting upon this support is another.

One way businesses can make a change is to improve on diversity and inclusion internally, and we’ve seen a massive increase in interest in this in the last few months.

Interest in diversity and inclusion is the highest it's been in years

Source: Google Trends and Brandwatch Consumer Research | 100 score represents point in time with highest search interest / volume of social media mentions. All other scores are relative to this

Whether this interest is followed up with real, measurable change is something to keep an eye on going forwards.


So, how do consumers view brand purpose in 2020?

The unrelenting pursuit of profit is, unsurprisingly, not what consumers consider businesses to be good for. Profit is increasingly seen as a negative word, while 52% of consumers think it’s ‘very important’ that a brand proactively makes the world a better place.

Actions like treating employees well, improving on sustainability, and helping the most vulnerable are expected of brands. Meanwhile, “virtue signalling” is seen as far less important than positive action.

Consumers also trust brands and employers more than the government in key areas like Covid-19 safety measures. This puts a huge responsibility on businesses to communicate and act responsibly to keep people safe.

As discussed above, this support around Covid-19 is expected to be provided by brands for a long while yet (into 2021). And key issues like sustainability and diversity and inclusion are seeing more and more consumer interest. If companies don’t go beyond performative support and take part in effective action, they should expect a backlash.

All of this adds up to one important point: Consumers care about the action businesses take and are vocal in what they want and need.

To get through 2020 and thrive beyond it, businesses must listen.


Social data:

We used social data in various ways in this report:

Profit data: We searched for mentions of profit (and variants like profits, profited) from July 2019 to July 2020. We then used Brandwatch’s benchmarking tool to compare this date range to the year before to see how sentiment and emotion driven mentions had changed. This data covered all our data sources, from Twitter to Reddit to news sites and beyond.

Adidas data: We searched for mentions of Adidas specifically on Twitter from July 2019 – July 2020 using Brandwatch Consumer Research. We used AI assistant Iris to identify what was driving peaks in conversation. Iris showed us that the #ChangeIsATeam sport hashtag was behind the largest spike, so we searched within Adidas mentions to find out what the emotion behind those tweets was.

Diversity and inclusion data: We searched for mentions of ‘diversity and inclusion’ or ‘inclusion and diversity’ across all our social media sources from July 2018 to July 2020. For the chart above, we broke the data down by week and assigned scores from 1-100 for each week. A score of 100 represents the point in time when there were most mentions, and all other scores are relative to that. That meant we could compare interest on social media with interest on search.

Survey data:

We surveyed just over 7,000 adults across the US, Mexico, Australia, Singapore, the UK, France, Spain, and Germany using our mobile survey tool Brandwatch Qriously. Qriously replaces ads on mobile apps with survey questions.

Search data:

We used Google Trends to look at how people were searching for specific keywords over time. The interest score of 100 represents the point in time that search interest was highest, and all other scores are relative to that point.


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