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Ethical Commerce - The Rise of the Activist Brand

4th Jan 2022

Those that succeed regularly rethink their branding, visuals, messaging, content and actions to make sure they are consistently communicating their purpose, values and beliefs as they evolve. They build a purposeful narrative through storytelling to build long-term relationships with customers. Some retailers are among the best storytellers out there.

Sharing purpose through brand stories in the SEO gold rush, retailers have rightly focused on optimising their content and algorithms so that they rank highly on search engine results pages. You will want to make it easy for Google’s algorithm to pick up the SEO signals that your content is high quality and answers their users’ search intent.

All content should be written with an SEO mindset. But people won’t buy into your brand just because you rank on page one of Google. People will buy into your brand because of the stories you share in the content that they find on the page (we hope). These stories should move them emotionally and give them a compelling reason to connect and remain loyal. It sounds simple enough. But finding a consensus on what brand storytelling actually means is more difficult. We like this definition from Kaitlin Loyal at Scribewise:

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s stick with how Kaitlin breaks down the key elements:

Your brand story is the reason your business was set up. It’s your past, present and future. It’s about your history, purpose, values and beliefs and the way these still drive your mission today. Brand storytelling is gaining traction as a marketing tactic. It’s a strategy that’s backed up by the scientists – because as HubSpot points out, “the human brain is wired to respond to well-crafted narrative”. We all want stories. When you consider that 81% of consumers expect companies to be environmentally aware in all their advertising and communications, according to Getty Images, retailers that master the craft of storytelling will cut through. 

What’s your brand’s purpose?

Every retailer has a story and a purpose. What’s yours? The first step in finding out is to (re)define what you stand for. This is ground zero. Everything will flow from here. 

As we mentioned earlier, ethical commerce is a powerful way for retailers to stand out and grow through the loyalty of an impassioned customer base that wants to join the movement, shout about the brand and come back time and time again.

But retailers looking to join this not-so-quiet revolution beware. Customers will sniff out inauthenticity, virtue signalling, over-hyped or made-up campaigns, inferior products or business practices that fall short on the standards promised. Loyalty will be lost and reputations damaged.

Marketing teams that are asked to come up with campaigns showing their environmental and social credentials will need to prove to customers that the business is walking the walk. So before you can run, you’ll need to figure out what this walk is – your purpose.

It’s this purpose (and your values and beliefs) that are the compass that guides your brand story, actions, behaviour and decision-making. You’ve heard a lot about ‘purpose’ and brands that are ‘purpose-driven’. But what do we mean? Here’s a succinct definition from Econsultancy (no existentialism required). 

There’s a lot to unpick here, too. Let’s look at purpose first. Consumers expect retail brands to use their power for good purpose. Here’s the thing, though. Few brands have a clear sense of how their purpose can be used as a force for good beyond their products and services. Let’s get back to Kantar on this. It found that while 76% of marketers believe their organisation has a defined purpose, only 10% say this purpose goes beyond their product/service promise to include a societal commitment. 

If you need to rethink your purpose, here are a few questions to think about: 

  • What do we stand for and how do we want to make a difference in the world?
  • What are our core values and what do we believe in? 
  • How can we bring our mission and values to life? 
  • How can we encourage and inspire people to join our movement?


Once you have a clear purpose, you then need to work out who you are sharing your stories with.

The ethical stance a retailer makes will have a big impact on the way people will spend their money. Concerns about the planet and society are growing stronger, despite the impact of Covid. For example, 8 out of 10 consumers say they are changing their behaviour and purchasing preferences based on brands’ social responsibility, environmental impact and inclusiveness, according to Capgemini Research Institute. 

Garnier reports that 73% of UK consumers want to be more sustainable this year, and a quarter have already made changes to their actions and behaviours due to the pandemic. When asked about why they thought it would be easier to make a ‘green’ resolution now, compared with previous years, 29% reported that Covid had made them re-evaluate their priorities.

And so there comes a need to deeply re-evaluate customer personas post-covid, to adapt and re-evaluate your business stance. Our third issue in the Ethical Commerce series will take a deeper dive, examining these new customer archetypes, habits and priorities.


Keep an eye on our socials for Issue 3.