Hail the humble brand

When a culture is in crisis, participation rather than domination becomes the imperative.
05 February 2021
Brands must participate in social movements
Josephine Simple

Cultural Insight & Brand Analyst

Sarah Capers

Head of Brand, Consulting Division, North America

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We talked a lot about purpose in 2020. Even before COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s lives, we were calling on brands to have a purposeful impact on the world in our joint study with the ARF. Once COVID-19 hit, we doubled down: it’s not just about having a purpose but doing your purpose. In a moment of crisis, there was a call to shed the rhetoric and do something tangible to solve society’s imminent problems – distribute masks, produce ventilators, feed people who were going hungry, amplify the message of staying home to flatten the curve

In June 2020 uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd brought another epidemic to the forefront of public consciousness – systemic racism. Again, businesses were asked to respond. Not with lip service, but real actions connected to their business and the part they played in maintaining a status quo of white supremacy. These looked like amends for hostile and racist working environments, changes in company leadership, initiatives to close the racial wealth gap, money donated to Black-led organizations forwarding the fight of racial justice

Amidst and connected to COVID-19 and the struggle for racial equity are other societal phenomena impacting our lives: insurgency and political extremism, wealth inequality, climate catastrophe, data insecurity, fake news. We look around and see imminent threats to our personal and collective safety. 

It’s a lot. And it’s why our team is using the term “purpose” and “purpose-doing” a bit less these days and participation a lot more. Yes, it sounds unglamorous. It might even sound counter-intuitive for a brand that is trying to “cut through the noise.” But when a culture is in crisis, participation rather than domination becomes the imperative. Small-scale, unglamorous, and persistent effort is what just might change the world. 

In her essay “Calling In” published at the end of 2020, climate activist Xiye Bastida reminds us that “A vibrant, fair, and regenerative future is possible – not when thousands of people do climate justice activism perfectly, but when millions of people do the best they can,” (All We Can Save, p. 7).  Bastida is telling us that participation is the key to harmonious change. This echoes trends large and small we’ve seen bubble up in culture over the past few years and come to the fore during this time of challenge. The shifts from individualism to collectivism, from exclusive to inclusive, from talking to listening, from intensity to moderation. Community and humility are on the rise, underscoring our deep interdependence and the limits of what we can do alone.

So, how can you start participating and in turn create a meaningful life for your brand and business during this cultural shift? Here are three steps you might think about it. These steps aren’t everything, but we’re entering a phase more focused on process than completion anyway. We expect 2021 will keep us, and our clients, on our toes. But we know participation will be both our learning and leadership in the months to come. Let’s get to it.


Kantar emphasized this critical first step last summer in J. Walker Smith’s “Do Moment” published during the weeks-long protests in support of black life. There was then, as today, a call to action for dominant actors (brands, that is you!) to listen to voices that are often excluded: Black, brown, indigenous, queer, trans, disabled, neurodiverse, femme. The list goes on. People who have been silenced by the status quo have had to pave their own paths. That’s why they are the people shifting the cultural conversations, planting the grassroots. This is not just about traditional social justice issues. Listen to children and teens about climate change. Listen to people of color and trans people about healthcare. Listen to the people who are affected the hardest by the world’s problems. They are leading. All brands need to listen.

Listening can come with challenges. It requires admitting how little we know and taking accountability so that we can authentically do the work we need to do. In the words of Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey, “America hasn’t made enough progress, corporate America hasn’t made enough progress and nor has…” insert your brand here.

Listening also requires knowing whom and what to listen to. Cultural analysts – like our own experts at Kantar – can give you a head start. But third-party experts can only get you so far unless you build your cultural intelligence from within. Patagonia does this by nurturing a broad web of grassroots activist organizations. These activists act as Patagonia’s on-the-ground eyes and ears. They draw the company’s attention to the most pressing issues concerning our planet and set the urgent attitude for the brand’s activations.  


Listening actively requires integrating your new cultural intelligence into how your brand shows up. Bring the diverse abundance of human life into your brand: in the image you project, the language you use, the people you hire and empower, the consumers you open your doors to, and the values you live. Listening and integrating is a virtuous cycle. The more you listen, the better you can integrate. The more you integrate, the easier it becomes to listen. Once this cycle gets going, cultural relevance is inevitable, as demonstrated by brands like Fenty Beauty which has fundamentally shifted the values and expectations of its industry

Clients seek the help of our Inclusion and Cultural Insights practices because they recognize a disconnect between their brand as it exists now, and the real people that they hope to serve. They understand that our society is diverse: we the people are not airbrushed, not all white, cisgender, and young. We do not live in the non-descript minimalist homes seen in stock photos. Instead, our lives are full of specifics, intersecting identities and experiences. This will only become truer as the diversity-fluent millennial and Gen Z generations step even more into their spending power and positions of leadership. 

When this diversity is meaningfully integrated into your organization and brand expression, participating in culture becomes a natural extension of who you are.

Join & uplift

Everyone wants to lead and chart new trajectories in their category and in culture. But as the cultural consciousness becomes more suspicious of individualism as a contributing factor to many of the society’s most pressing challenges, it also is more skeptical of brands that act like lone heroes.  

Today’s leadership is fluid, shared, and multiplied. Leaders don’t charge ahead of the pack; they are part of the pack. They do not watch culture as outside observers to come up with an opportunistic winning strategy. They are already out there building, sharing and participating in culture right alongside everybody else. They create partnerships and uplift the people who are working on things that matter to the group.

So, whom do you join? And on what things do you work together?

Your brand is unique. It’s got some authentic anchor that sets you apart. We enjoy helping brands find and articulate what that is. Maybe it is why you got started in your business. Maybe it is something that your employees today hold dear. Maybe it’s connected to what you harvest or produce or inspire. Whatever that is, keep it close. Our roots and foundations are bridges that bring us to the right cultural causes for our brands. Passion, not expertise, is required. Unilever’s TAZO Tea knew they had a moral responsibility to do more for the planet and its people but didn’t know exactly how. They committed to “learning to be champions.” And in November, the brand partnered with the Intersectional Environmentalist organization, launching a paid internship program designed to empower BIPOC activists fighting for climate justice.

Find what you care about, join those on the frontlines and uplift their work. That’s how you differentiate, make a difference, and stay humble all at the same time.

To learn more about turning Purpose into Participation and to speak with an expert, please complete the form below.  

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