Brand Purpose – The Slippery Slope for Woke Brands

‘Brand Purpose’ – the reason for a brand to exist beyond making money – has become a hot topic.

Many brands now include topics such as race, gender, sexuality, and the environment in their communications, subjects that they might have avoided only a few years ago.

However, relatively little research has been done into whether consumers actually support this type of messaging in advertising.  The BVA BDRC Group undertook a survey of consumers to examine this issue in more detail.  We took a nationally representative sample in the UK, a market that has seen a lot of activism on social issues.  We set out to assess how much consumers welcome or oppose the inclusion of messaging on race, gender, sexuality, and the environment in brand advertising and communications.

Though there is support for the inclusion of messaging on race, gender, and sexuality, in no case is there a majority in support.

Some interesting themes emerged when we asked people for the reasons behind their answers:

1)  Even among those who welcome this kind of messaging, a number felt that brands were jumping on a bandwagon.

2) A proportion of the large number with ‘no opinion’ on the subject seem to be more negative when asked why they have no opinion.  It is likely they are hiding a less ‘socially acceptable’ response by not stating that they oppose the messaging but preferring to stay neutral.

3)  Those who welcomed the messaging on average wrote a total of 11 words each when asked why. Those opposing averaged twice as many (22) words, which is indicative of more strongly felt opinions among those opposed. There were quite a number who said they felt this kind of content was divisive, and the level of opposition could result in far more brand detractors than plaudits.

Demographics are a strong predictor of attitude to Brand Purpose.

For all three of these themes, support is higher among the young (especially under-35s).

AB social grades and higher income groups are more likely to welcome the inclusion of messaging on race, though there is less difference for gender and sexuality.


Minority ethnic groups are a little more likely than the total population to welcome the inclusion of race, but a little less likely to support gender and sexuality.

This also means that (especially) older age groups, are more likely to oppose this kind of messaging.  It is also worth noting that those in the C2 social grade (skilled manual workers) are especially likely to be in opposition.

There is far more support for messaging on the environment – it is seen as a far less divisive issue compared to that on race, gender, and sexuality, and one that affects everybody.    Support for the inclusion of environmental messaging is remarkably consistent across varied demographics – in fact, the over-55s are even more supportive than younger age groups, if only by a small margin.


What does this mean for brands?


In June 2020, Mediatel ran an article on a research study called The Aspiration Window, produced by the publisher Reach Solutions.

The study highlighted how advertising professionals are very different from the general population, and how this can result in a lack of understanding of mainstream audiences.

Our research shows that the demographic groups that are dominant among advertising professionals are broadly more supportive of Brand Purpose messaging than the population as a whole.

If those making decisions on brands’ advertising strategies are drawn from a demographically (and attitudinally) relatively narrow group, it increases the risk of decisions being influenced by ‘groupthink’, whereby a desire for conformity within a group results in an over-inflated sense of certainty that the correct decision has been made.

Given the differences in demographics and mindset between advertising professionals and the wider population, research is important to gauge both the popularity of the proposed ‘purpose’ AND whether consumers feel it is appropriate for it to be co-opted by your brand.

If this research is not conducted, then there is a danger that ‘Brand Purpose’ messaging will not properly consider large groups such as older age groups and the working class.



The opportunity cost of incorporating Brand Purpose messaging into brand advertising and communications must also be considered.

Recent brand thinking has highlighted the importance of growing brands by appealing to a broad audience of all potential category buyers.  Budget spent on Brand Purpose could have gone into other messaging (e.g. product features, humour).

A danger for brands is that they are spending a lot of time on messaging that does not play a significant role in purchasing decisions.

While corporate virtue signalling can build loyalty and win over new customers, some are sceptical about the sincerity of these brands about these causes.  Worse still, consumers might see corporations aligning with dubious organisations and spread far more negative word-of-mouth about these brands. The ‘silent majority’, who claim to have no opinion, are more likely to hold negative thoughts about these brands privately and consequently might choose to shop elsewhere.  The best approach is for a brand to instead focus on their core brand purpose, communicating value for money, reliability, and product/service quality.