Opinion: Cause without a cause (Part 2)

In the final part of the series, Aditya Dubash speaks about the rise of Conscious Consumerism and how can brands be a part of this wave as opposed to taking a tokenist approach to cause marketing.

From Ayurveda in personal care to bamboo toothbrushes to the newer snacking options, more supermarket shelves now proudly feature ‘healthy’, ‘green’, ‘natural’, and ‘chemical-free’ products upfront. In the past few years, there has been a massive shift in consumerism (beginning with the ‘Patanjali effect’), permeating into every single product category – people are becoming more ‘conscious’ of what they are spending their money on.

While part 1 of the series addressed the need to look at a ‘cause’ from beyond a marketing lens, in part 2, we take a closer look at the consumer side of things and also, a perspective on how brands can look at framing their communication if they intend to pursue a cause.

Rise of Conscious Consumerism

A 2020 survey by Edelman points to this fact and shows that this push is twofold – consumers as well as employees of an organization.

The survey found that 64% of consumers are “belief-driven buyers”— that is, they may choose to purchase, switch from or to, or boycott a brand based on its stance on social issues.

This stance is particularly common among highly coveted young consumers. The study also highlights that a strong majority of the workforce want their C-suite to speak out about issues like income inequality (78%), diversity (77%), and climate change (73%). All this leads to brands taking note that
people are becoming ‘woke’ and that this is the age of ‘conscious consumerism’.

Closer home, in a survey by Economic Times, it was revealed that 79% Indians change purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact by the brand with more than half (54%) willing to pay a premium for the ‘value’ they see in a brand. It also indicated that ~60% of the people have reduced spending on brands that they think are ‘non-sustainable’. Basically, Indians are getting ‘woking-up’ and are mimicking the global shift in purchase especially when it comes to younger audiences like Gen Z.

Voice v/s Echo Chamber

‘Wokeness’ is a result of the change in the level of exposure that we are getting accustomed to as screen times and social media usage continues to increase at exponential rates. Social media platforms like Twitter were conceived as a means to give more people a voice. As many newer forms of social media platforms have become mainstream, our desire to express ourselves has become more and more potent.

However, higher usage of these platforms has led to online behaviour shifting towards unthinking conformity and a lack of sense of individuality or personal accountability. Truth is, we have become more hive-minded due to social media. While these platforms aimed to give everyone an opinion, they have wound up leading to very few thought leaders and too many followers trying to put their stamp on the cultural zeitgeist. This phenomenon is mimicked by brands too – all the hyped-up ‘moment marketing’, communications targeting ‘topical dates’ and trying to associate with each and every ‘cause’ are starting to come across as desperate bids for cultural relevance and being a part of trending conversations.

This brings us to the crux of the problem – brands getting ‘woke’. While there is nothing wrong with brands actually trying to do good for society, every brand should think long and hard before supporting a cause. Brands need to be sure of whether they are actually committing to it or just ‘woke-washing’ their comms.

Adopting a ‘Cause’

The OG poster child for woke-washing remains Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad that reduced the entire ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to “Dude, you need to chill. Have a Pepsi”. The ad got unanimously panned and it became famous across the world due to social media. And Gen Z are typically notorious with this since they are vastly more social media savvy and have absolutely no fear in calling out brands for tokenism (PRIDE flag display pictures, anyone?)

However, there are some brands that have gone above and beyond short term bursts of communication:


When Patagonia came up with ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ in 2011, they asked their consumers to reconsider their decision before buying the product. It may sound like shooting themselves in the foot, but they understood the cultural context that people are becoming more conscious in their spending and are looking towards products that last. Not only did this campaign serve as a platform for Patagonia to talk about the quality and durability of their jackets, but they also took environmental impact very seriously and followed it up with various initiatives internally (commitment towards reducing their environmental footprint in production).

They also ran a campaign promoting recycling by wearing used clothing that were donated by consumers and repaired by the brand. Going a step further, they put their brand’s voice behind supporting legislation that was pro-environment and ended up suing the U.S. government in 2017 regarding proclamations to reduce the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by almost 50%.


Based on a 2020 study that found only 1.8% of characters in ads from the annual Cannes Lions festival were LGBTQ, P&G tied up with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), one of the world’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, to start ‘The Visibility Project’. According to the brand, the tie-up aims to accelerate LGBTQ acceptance & representation in the world of advertising by bringing together the world’s top brands and ad agencies to advance LGBTQ inclusion in ads, and create and provide tools, techniques and resources for industry executives to help increase diversity in advertising. The alliance has the potential to be a first step in reducing inauthentic LGBTQ representation and actually giving the community a chance to tell their stories.


In 2018, Vodafone launched ‘Sakhi’ to solve a real-world problem of misuse and harassment of women. This was based on a police report which had discovered a scheme where mobile shops sell women’s phone numbers to men, who then harass them with unwanted messages and pictures. Vodafone changed how recharges are done by providing women users a dummy 10-digit number to ensure privacy. They also expanded the initiative to make it freely available as well as include provisions like emergency alerts that can be sent to family members and a provision of ‘emergency balance’ enabling phone calls even with zero talktime for emergencies.

There are more such examples where brands have legitimately stepped up to walk the talk.

What brands should be looking at

Behavioural psychology author, Nir Eyal, came up with an interesting four-step framework to counter technological distractions (mostly because of smartphone addictions) and gain control over our time by understanding triggers and behaviours. It was his version of how to make technology work for us rather than becoming subversive to its effects.

If we are to adopt a similar approach towards Cause marketing, brands need to keep the ‘purpose’ at the centre and look at it from the four facets of the framework:

Master Internal Triggers – Changing our approach to move from reacting to proactively looking at and understanding, isolating, and working on policies, issues, and system roadblocks that prevent us from associating with a cause without being dishonest. This is specifically important to avoid a Nike -like situation (with Allyson Felix) where the brand gets called out for communicating a message which does not match their actions.

Hack Back External Triggers – Instead of letting popular opinion guide how the brand’s messaging is shaped, it becomes important to include and listen to the voices that have been supporting or fighting for the particular cause that a brand wants to adopt to have an authentic voice. This includes collaboration with organizations that have been in the field for a long time, case in point, P&G + GLAAD.

Perfect Distractions with Pacts – One of the aspects that a brand needs to be sure of before committing to a cause is to figure out issues that prevent the fulfilment of the brand’s core promise. A case in example is Chipotle as their attempts to talk about their food philosophy were called out on the account of hygiene and quality issues in their franchises. In this case, the brand needs to prevent these kinds of ‘distractions’ from being able to support a cause by taking steps to ensure they are not lagging on their core offerings.

Make time for traction – Finally, have a plan/roadmap/direction in trying to set up short, mid, and long term perspectives in how adopting a ‘Brand Purpose’ will shape the future identity, image, and communications of the brand. Case in point, brands like Stayfree and Whisper (Always) started off with bringing conversations around menstruation to the mainstream and have committed to educating women on menstrual hygiene in the long run.

Finally, the point that is to be noted here is that people have started becoming more aware of social issues, viewing them as agendas and have gained avenues to raise their voices where the brand is now forced into the backfoot. In the past few days, we have seen FabIndia, Zomato and Fem face massive backlash online for their attempts at going ‘woke’. Brands can no longer get away with acts of tokenism to profit from a cause. Both the brand teams and agencies need to think long and hard if a one time attempt at showing progressive agenda is worth the cancelling that they will be subject to if the cause they align towards is not imbued into the brand’s culture and path forward.

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