The relationship between brand purpose and digital needs closer examination

Our Head of Account Management, Will Hossner, recently wrote this piece in The Drum.


2020 has redefined the digital industry. Restrictions placed on physical contact have significantly altered the landscape of our lives, causing the use of technology to rocket. ‘Digital transformation’, so often preached about during the past decade, has arrived. Winners are emerging at velocity in a world where even outlier digital brands can become category-describing verbs overnight.


So, this is great news for the digital industry, yes? It’s time for us all to clean up thanks to another extended period of restricted human contact and unfettered connectivity, right?


Let’s remember that before Covid-19, the role of technology in society was increasingly under the microscope. Digital dependency and technology addiction were a growing phenomenon. An extensive body of literature from pre-pandemic times can be found to support the negative effects of the overuse of technology on our wellbeing. Indeed, we wrote on this topic back in pre-pandemic February.


Needless to say, this problem has not gone away. In fact, Covid-19 has exacerbated it. The more we rely on digital, the more overwhelmed we become. There are reports emerging to show that the additional screen-time caused by the blurred lines of remote working is increasing anxiety levels among the population. To add to all the other challenges in what is already the most challenging period for society in living memory, this remains a problem that we need to overcome.


The past six months have also seen a prevalence of digital industry experts evangelising the importance of brand building during this period of uncertainty. The overall recommendation has been to invest in activities that maintain and boost brand equity to prime for long-term prosperity, operating in parallel to whatever short-term tactical actions are needed to keep the lights on.


This has elevated the topic of ‘brand purpose’ to the top of chief marketing officers’ agendas once again, as corporations, surrounded by all this disruption, need to be seen as making a valuable contribution to the societies they serve and the planet on which they operate.


And, of course, consumers demand it. They are the main accelerator for brand purpose now that a brand’s every action is under the spotlight on social media. Consumers are becoming more particular about who they decide to buy from. Studies show that purpose-led actions will drive consumers’ purchase decisions now and in the future.


So, as brands become more ethics driven, how can they use digital in a way that makes a positive contribution to the wellbeing of society? What constitutes a purposeful approach to connecting with potential buyers and existing customers?


Not enough scrutiny is applied to digital strategies that target, retarget, disrupt and interrupt people, not to mention the ecosystems that makes it possible. Few brands are approaching their use of digital in ways that are truly respectful of consumers’ attention and wellbeing. It is this practice that affects every one of us, individually, daily.


This type of activity is the legacy of the media industry, which has been built and fed on effective performance equaling impressions, views, clicks, engagement, acquisitions and conversions. Yes, these performance models continue to make lots of people lots of money. So it stands to reason that many brands look to grab peoples’ attention and keep them glued to content and experiences for as long as humanly possible so they can move them further down the path towards conversion. This philosophy is what has been iteratively agreed on by the industry as the sparkling beacon of digital effectiveness.


For years, digital products have been created with the intention of making them ‘sticky’ and getting you hooked. They are crafted to create patterns of behaviour to form dependence. This is why there was a growing pre-pandemic movement to empower audiences with the awareness and ability to avoid the bottomless distraction of digital screens and help them regain control of their attention. There’s a lot of recommended reading on this subject (check out Nir Eyal’s Indistractable and Cal Newport’s Deep Work).

Now Covid-19 has brought the need for more digital in our lives, so we need to start helping consumers wrestle some of their attention back, to spend their time being, for example, more present with their loved ones or giving headspace to that article that needs writing.


But does the responsibility sit solely with the individual? The answer is ‘no’. We believe there is a growing need for brands to take more responsibility in how they use digital to reach and interact with people. To ignore this, in the face of this growing movement, they risk undermining their purpose initiatives and being filtered out by consumers who are tiring of their negligence.


This pandemic is causing us to spend much more time in front of connected screens than ever before. It has also elevated the importance of how brands operate in the world, over and above making profit. And it is highlighting the need for the digital industry to create more considerate and respectful uses of technology that are attention-efficient to benefit humans’ wellbeing.


Brands that design digital experiences with the finite attention capacity of humans in mind and don’t look to manipulate or abuse it, who communicate timely and relevant messages on mediums that are mindful of the contexts in which they’re being received, and, crucially, that help consumers to do more of the things that they love to do, and not distract from them, will be the brands that are sought out and not muted.


When brands start using digital to help people do more of the things that bring them joy and achieve purpose in their own lives, then they will be making a positive, more purposeful contribution to society as a result. If they do not, consumers will become blind to their purpose activities, and make sure that they’re screened out.