Social Conscience Brands
The rise (and rise) of social conscience brands and the transformation of consumer behaviour.
In the last couple of decades, a new category of brand has emerged which capture the attention and loyalty of consumers like never before.
Known as ‘Social Conscience Brands’ they prioritise social responsibility and ethical practices alongside their core business objectives and commercial activity.
This has become especially relevant as social issues such as representation, human rights, the environment, racial and gender equality have become evermore popular topics of discussion. This conversation hasn’t been led by just news outlets and media professionals, everyday people are using social media as a tool to stand up for what they believe in and mobilise friends and followers.
In this climate, both brands and advertisers must decide if they want to take a stance on issues and what they wish to say about them. Many existing brands have taken the initiative of incorporating social responsibility into their brand strategies and many new businesses and products have been created to raise awareness and offer solutions for social issues they believe in.
What is a social conscience brand?
A social conscience brand refers to a company which incorporates social concerns into its business operation. These kinds of brands are committed to making a positive impact on society; whether by supporting charitable causes, promoting sustainable practices, or advocating for social justice. They often prioritise transparency, ethical sourcing, fair labor practices, and environmental issues throughout their supply chains and the products they offer may also have a socially responsible cause connected to them.
But how important is a social conscience to consumers? What is the actual impact of these brands on consumer behaviour and the causes they support? How significant are they in today’s market? Which brands are doing this well? What challenges do they face and where do we see this ‘movement’ going?
The origins of social conscience brands
A social conscience is nothing new, especially when it comes to brands and products. It could be argued that religious movements and their associated causes are the original social conscience brands. Charity, is by definition is an attempt to solve social problems and it emerged centuries ago across most religious traditions. In the 19th-century, various philanthropic and social reform movements were created to address poverty and inequality. This saw the rise of organisations such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross which aimed to provide assistance to the poor and those affected by disaster or conflict.
Charity store brands
In the 20th Century, the ‘charity store’ (also known as thrift stores or secondhand shops) were developed as a retail extension of charitable organisations. They each share a common business model which works on a philanthropic approach by accepting donated items and then selling them at affordable prices. The proceeds of the sales are then used to support various causes, typically welfare and poverty. Staffing is often voluntary and retail space offered at discount rates. There are hundreds of these kinds of stores around the world. Some of the more popular stores in Australia include:
Salvation Army (The Salvos)
The Salvation Army, commonly known as “The Salvos” are an international charitable organisation. With a history spanning over a century, the Salvos are committed to providing support and assistance to individuals and communities in need. Through their diverse range of programs, including homelessness services, addiction recovery, emergency relief, and employment assistance, the Salvos continue to make a significant impact in alleviating poverty, promoting social justice, and offering hope to those facing challenging circumstances across the country.
Red Cross / Red Cresent / Red Crystal
The Red Cross (Red Crescent in Islamic countries and Red Crystal in Israel) provide assistance and relief to those affected by disaster and conflicts worldwide. Established in 1863, it is known for its iconic emblem of a red cross set against a white background which was inspired by the Swiss flag (a white cross against a red background), paying tribute to the organisation’s origins in Switzerland and representing its impartiality and neutrality.
The Red Crescent was created to offer the same aid within Islamic countries, with the Red Crystal helping those in need within Israel. There are many dozens of Red Cross stores across Australia.
St Vincent De Paul Society (Vinnies)
The St Vincent de Paul Society also known as “Vinnies” in Australia is a prominent charitable organisation dedicated to helping those in need. Established in 1854, it operates across the country, providing vital assistance to individuals and families facing poverty, homelessness, and other challenges. With a network of dedicated volunteers, stores and community programs, the society offers emergency relief, affordable housing, employment support, and educational opportunities.
The stores hold an especially popular place in the hearts of Australian consumers who enjoy hunting for bargains, vintage items and hidden treasure.
Activist versus social conscience brands
Brand activism is when a brand or business takes a stand on a social, environmental, economic, or political issues. They are similar to social conscience brands in that both aim to make a positive impact on society. However, there are some key differences in their approach and focus.
Activist brands are typically driven by a cause or issue and actively engage in advocacy, campaigning and public activism. They often take a more visible or vocal approach, using their platform to raise awareness, initiate debate or protest and aim to mobilise and inspire others to take action and bring about change. Their purpose is centred around creating ‘movements’ which challenge the status quo and can drive systemic change.
On the other hand, social conscience brands have a broader focus on social responsibility and ethical practices across business activities. They are commercial ventures which seek to use the system rather than change it, adopting a more subtle and commercial approach by integrating social consciousness into their business and/or products.
Some good examples of activist brands include the following:
Established in 1971, Greenpeace is an international environmental organisation who promote peace, protection and preservation of the planet. Committed to safeguarding the Earth’s natural resources and biodiversity, Greenpeace has become synonymous with global environmental activism. They employ a range of strategies to achieve their goals; including non-violent direct action, peaceful protest and political campaigning to mobilise people and persuade governments to take responsible and sustainable actions.
Infamously, in 1985 the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior was sunk by French secret service agents. The vessel was moored in Auckland, New Zealand whilst making preparations to confront French nuclear testing in the Moruroa Atoll. Close to midnight two explosions ripped through the hull and partially sank the ship. It was later revealed that French government had sanctioned the agents to attach plastic-wrapped explosives to the ship below the water line. This act killed Fernando Pereira, the Portuguese born photographer who was working with Greenpeace to document the protest. The incident raising international outrage.
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament advocates for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. Established in the United Kingdom in 1958, CND has been at the forefront of this global movement. Through peaceful protests, lobbying and public awareness campaigns, CND has played a significant role in promoting disarmament and raising awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons.
CND has one of the world’s most recognisable icons associated with its activities. Known as the “peace symbol” it was designed by British artist Gerald Holtom and features a circle with three lines running through it. The symbol was designed to represent the semaphore letters “N” and “D” for nuclear disarmament, with the lines serving as a symbolic visualisation of hands reaching out in peace. Trademark registration of the logo was never initiated which led to it being widely adopted by the public throughout the 1960s as a general purpose symbol for peace.
Sea Shepherd is an international marine conservation organisation committed to protecting marine wildlife and ecosystems. Founded in 1977 by graphic artist, Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd uses direct action strategies to confront activities such as illegal fishing, whaling and the hunting of endangered marine species.
With a fleet of ships and volunteers, they patrol the world’s oceans, intervening when necessary to disrupt illegal operations. Their various campaigns employ what they describe as “aggressive, non-violent tactics” and they have successfully exposed and curtailed many illegal activities, saving countless marine lives. This has earned them recognition as a leading force in marine conservation. From a design perspective, the Sea Shepherd skull and crossbones logo stands out for its use of wit. Designed by founder Paul Watson the icon features a trident (connecting it to the ocean) and a shepherd’s crook (which echoes the brand name).
Patagonia bridge the gap between brand activist and social conscience brand. Founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia is an outdoor clothing and gear company known for producing high-quality, durable products. They are committed to environmental sustainability, promoting fair labour practices and social responsibility. The organisation has become a benchmark for adopting ethical practices and initiatives which can minimise ecological footprint.
The company actively supports environmental causes, such as those fighting against oil and gas drilling. Patagonia’s business model stands out in the corporate world; combining profitability with activism. They have a self-imposed 1% ‘Earth Tax’ which in tandem with donations enable Patagonia to provide approximately US$100 Million each year to help fight climate change.
The rise of the social conscience brand
In the last twenty years, our view of the world and the challenges we face around it has broadened, perhaps in part due to the internet. The internet has also offered alternative methods of raising awareness and connecting with people beyond traditional news channels, protests and retail stores. From a background of charity and activism the “social conscience brand” has emerged which use commercial activity as a way to raise awareness and funds to help solve social issues. Today social conscience brands offer solutions for a wide range of social concerns, which include:
- Environmental issues; such as concerns over the state of the planet and resources
- Sustainable living; by reducing the impact of excessive consumption and waste by extending the lifespan of pre-owned goods
- Healthcare concerns; funding solutions for cancer research, disease, access to medical aid and sanitary products
- Animal welfare; such as helping to save endangered species, or supporting guide dogs for the blind
- Economic factors; where charity stores offer affordable buying alternatives for people looking for budget-friendly options
- Rare items; vintage, retro-products and antiques can often be found in these stores; including clothing, furniture, and collectibles
- Supporting communities; helping improve the lives of people and communities
- Educational initiatives; which provide funding for access to education and equipment
- Living standards; Clean water and sanitation projects
- Disaster relief; where issues arise from natural disasters and/or conflict
- Art, culture and sport; projects which enhance culture, public spaces and access to sporting activities
Social conscience brands to look out for
Who Gives a Crap
Toilet paper may seem like an unusual choice for a socially conscious product, however Who Gives a Crap was developed from the fact that roughly 40% of the global population (that’s 2.4 billion people!) live without access to acceptable sanitation. This results in over half of Sub-Saharan African hospital beds being used to treat diarrhoea related diseases and kills over 900 children under 5 years of age every day!
Who Gives a Crap provide 50% of their profits to sanitation projects in developing countries and so far have donated more than $11,222,000 Aussie Dollars.
A distinguishing feature about Who Gives a Crap is the packaging design, which seeks to do something different. Rather than appear overly ‘charity’ or low brow, the brand doesn’t take itself too seriously and uses wit to connect with customers. Wrapped up like colourful little gifts, the packaging design is forever changing, turning a mundane everyday practical item into something special which consumers are proud to put on display in their bathrooms.
Park Social Soccer Co
Founded in 2015, by Sam Davy and Tara Montoneri, PARK Social Soccer Co is a social conscience sports brand based in Melbourne which helps disadvantaged kids around the world via a sport they love. Partnering with local charities, NGOs and Government Agencies, PARK gets soccer balls onto the feet of kids that need them most with its Pass-A-Ball Project. Their one-for-one model means that for each ball purchased, an identical ball is passed to a kid in need.
This has a profound ripple effect: It teaches kids resilience, teamwork and dexterity; it brings communities together; and connects kids to billions of fellow players.
So far they have passed over 10,000 balls to kids across 36 countries, which has supported refugees, at-risk youth, abandoned boys and girls. In recent years Park Social footballs have become the official team balls for a variety of amateur and professional clubs. They have also extended their product range into clothing, accessories and video gaming. It is an incredible brand and one we find particularly interesting because it is so well designed (unsurprising as Sam was once a Creative Director at Apple working under Steve Jobs). If you love football, you’ll love Park Social. For more see our spotlight on them at this link.
Thankyou was set up 2008 in response to the fact that almost 900 million people in the world do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. Daniel Flynn pulled together a group of friends in Melbourne to do something about it. Their idea was to create a line of bottled water to fund projects overseas. Thankyou launched across all major supermarket chains in Australia. It was a big story and one which was embraced by consumers.
However, in 2020 Thankyou took the decision to cease production of their water “genesis product” as the business seeks to reduce its environmental impact from single-use plastic bottled water. Founder Daniel Flynn commented, “Water was the first product to introduce Thankyou as a concept... It was never about selling water, but rather harnessing collective consumer power to take action on extreme poverty”. Fortunately, the brand had already diversified into other categories which include 55 other products, including toiletries and hand sanitiser. This smart decision to pivot the brand saw Thankyou not only survive the pandemic, but experience “radical growth in revenue”.
The benefits of a social conscience
Employee value proposition
Staff, when given the choice prefer to work in companies which do social good. Increasingly, great people are seeking not only great opportunities to further their careers, but are seeking workplaces which value social issues as well. They want to know that the actions they take as employees is doing good. Companies which have clarity on their social conscience and build it into their Brand Culture and EVP, they provide both existing and potential employees with a point of difference from competitive brands.
Standout from competitors
As societal values evolve, consumers are seeking to align their purchases with their personal beliefs. Social conscience brands provide an avenue for consumers to support the causes they care about, while going about their everyday life. When you have a compelling brand conscience you create a platform for growth which stands out from your competitors.
Build trust and customer loyalty
The brands which demonstrate a genuine commitment to social responsibility earn the trust and loyalty of consumers which goes far beyond simple familiarity. By championing causes and being transparent about ones actions, you create meaningful connections which foster long-term, deep-seated relationships with customers.
Reshape and lead the market
The success of social conscience brands has had a profound impact on marketplaces. Not only do you give your brand an advantage, you take a leadership position which evolves the expectations and demands of consumers. This compels your competitors to take notice and adjust their business practices. So, not only do you do good for others, you do good for yourself and your industry.
Challenges faced by social conscience brands
There is no doubt that social conscience brands provide opportunities for consumers to help those who need it through their everyday buying choices. But while social conscience brands have made significant positive impacts, many challenges have also emerged:
- Greenwashing: Where some brands engage in presenting a socially responsible image without meaningful action or substantial change in practice. This can mislead consumers and undermine credibility.
- Limited accessibility: Social conscience brands often come with a premium price tag, making their products less accessible to lower-income consumers. This raises questions about affordability, inclusivity and the effective reach of the brand in solving an issue.
- Economic and global crises: What happens to our social conscience in an economic downturn or a global pandemic? Like any business, social conscience brands are susceptible to forces beyond their control, however the typically higher cost of production can make them more vulnerable to consumers switching back to cheaper, less socially aware options when money is tight.
- Controversial actions: In some cases, social conscience brands have faced controversies or conflicting actions which contradict their proclaimed values. These incidents can erode trust and damage reputation.
- Lack of transparency: The language used to describe exactly how much money is going to a cause can be misleading. For example, claims like ‘100% of profits’ may seem great, but it does not include what can sometimes be over-inflated expenses deducted from the profits. It is important to be very clear about ones social claims.
- Controversial causes: When a brand arbitrarily selects a cause because they wish to jump on the bandwagon things can go very wrong, very quickly. Budweiser’s recent campaign aligning themselves with transgender issues has backfired on the brand, seeing sales plummet and executives put on leave. Brands must be very careful when dealing with controversial subjects, especially those which are not necessarily the best fit for the brand.
The future of social conscience brands
A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.
The rise of social conscience brands has been nothing short of remarkable and represents a fundamental shift in what consumers expect from brands and businesses. Consumers are no longer solely focused on product features and prices; they want to support brands which align with their values and view of the world. Social conscience brands have successfully tapped into this demand by prioritising social responsibility. This has led to positive changes in consumer behaviour, market trends, and overall corporate practices.
While challenges do exist, the ongoing growth and influence of these brands suggest that incorporating a social conscience is not just a passing fad as some critics might argue. The evidence indicates it is the way forward for all businesses, especially when seeking deeper, emotional relationships with customers.
As Henry Ford once said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”.
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