The Rise of “Morality-Via-Branding” to Add Empathy and Connect Emotionally

By Jay Gronlund

If you are like me, you are probably sick of all the acrimony, blatant lies, nasty accusations, partisan rancor, and exaggerated rhetoric in politics today. Have we all lost our moral compass? Can we trust and believe anyone anymore? Can’t individual politicians simply do what’s right, and not just what their party demands? Well, in response to this increase in anger and negativity, there is a refreshing “morality-via-branding” trend emerging, where brand advertising is becoming more empathetic, providing a new port in this storm.

In his new book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein discusses the need for shared information and diverse experiences to help guard against “fragmentation, polarization, and extremism,” which will make it easier to solve problems and govern in a heterogeneous society. People today live in separate worlds and obsessive “partyism” is on the rise. For example, in 1960 only 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they would be displeased if their child married outside their political party. But by 2010, this fixation with one’s own party had intensified–49% for Republicans and 33% for Democrats (both probably higher today). Sunstein encourages citizens to demand a culture of curiosity and openness, ideally using social media for people with divergent views to discuss issues.

With the rise in anger and mistrust of our politicians and institutions, more brands are reacting and addressing consumers’ anxiety about civility, inequality, and inclusivity by invoking empathy in their advertising. By definition “empathy” is all about the ability to experience the feelings of others. This line of moral and social consciousness is intended not only to counteract the harsh political abuses, but to also strengthen their emotional connection with customers, which is the hallmark of good branding.

Should brands react to today’s political controversies, or more importantly, do consumers want brands to respond this way? The answer is, apparently, yes. In a recent survey by J. Walter Thompson, 88% agreed that “corporations have the power to influence social change, and 78% agreed that companies should take action to address the important issues facing society.” And not surprisingly, millennials were more proactive in their attitudes. In short, people want and even expect brands to use their power to affect change.

No longer are brands simply playing it safe and being apolitical. Instead, brand positions on social issues are being shaped by public opinion, and are responding to a situation that finds Americans more politically empowered than ever before. The expectations people have for companies and brands help explain other trends on social causes–e.g. ethical sourcing, fair trade, and the rise of the B-corp. It also explains why empathy has become so popular, as it fits with the consumer desires for more brand authenticity and inclusivity that are shaping our culture at the moment.

Since the November 2016 election, there has been surge of new commercials that respond to consumers’ concerns and anxieties, often viewed as a repudiation of “Trumpism.” Here are a few examples of such advertising: