Defend Truth


How should brands behave these days?


Jonathan Bain, founding partner, Bain & Bunkell co-founder of Bain & Bunkell, an Advertising/Marketing Agency.

Have brands adopted virtue signalling too aggressively in these strange days? Will it be permissible in future to simply sell a product of quality, without having to surround it with a spurious, world-changing ‘purpose’. There is surely value in the mere act of making and buying something of value.

The most crushing aspects of life in one of the world’s strictest lockdowns have come to an end. Not only is there a light at the end of the tunnel, but I now have permission to go outside and jog towards it (between 6am and 9am, of course). Level 4 seems to have swiftly changed the mood, however, from one of compliance and solidarity to grumbling insurrection.

What happened to our “chance to reflect” over the last few weeks? I feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up with Covid-19, and the Zeitgeist now seems to be zigging where once it zagged. So, before I join the protest march on Parliament (at least, as far as I can go within 5km of my home), it’s perhaps worth considering what insights have been gained over the last five weeks. I’m thinking particularly here of my industry; advertising and marketing.

Initially, I didn’t actually have much time for insightful reflection. Like those in most ad agencies, the shift to a wholly screen-based mode of work for my team was swift and brutal. As with learning any new skill, things took longer than usual. Days became lengthier and blurrier. We were, and are, busy. For this, I am grateful. It felt good to work. Hey, it even felt good to work on weekends.

A few thoughts have occurred, though, as how could they not? For all the noise and hysteria (why couldn’t CNN be furloughed?), I have been struck by an absence of contribution from two sectors. The first is the very religious. I am, by accident, a member of a “Pastors Group” on WhatsApp.

I am not a pastor, and really should have removed myself some time ago, but it’s interesting to be occasionally exposed to the thoughts of a section of society entirely removed from my usual experience.

For the most part, it is the expected: sermons, biblical verses, occasional homophobia. And it is often at a voluble place. But not when Covid-19 hit hard, and lockdown ensued. Crickets. Nothing. There was a lot of action over Easter, of course – mostly traditional stuff – and there have been some sermons about Covid-19 more recently.

But, overall, I was surprised at the lack of input from the men and women of the cloth. Was this all part of God’s plan? An enforced period of prayer and contemplation from the Almighty? Punishment for the tolerance of all these sodomites? Hard to tell.

And the second group who have contributed not terribly much to the moment are the leaders of my own industry. Perhaps this is, in large part, because of the obvious fact that consumers simply can’t buy as they used to… “must-haves” must have to wait, for now. Perhaps in larger part, this may also be because of the rather startling evidence of the fickleness and fragility of the capitalist enterprise.

Did it really take just three weeks to reduce the oil price to zero and have Richard Branson – Richard Branson! – pleading poverty? The mind reels. I have read some good stuff – thank you Brett Morris, Avi Dan, Andrew Barnes et al – but, in general, advice for brands has been, well, somewhat restricted.

So, for what it’s worth, let me offer my own, perforce shaky, ideas on our industry in the months to come.

  1. Some products will, of course, potentially do well out of this. Hammock sales are up in the UK; likewise those for chocolate chip biscuits in the US. I suspect that, at least initially, and when trade permits, nurseries, fitness and interior design-related brands will get a boost. Gardening, good health, wellbeing: 1 May was a mini-New Year’s Day – everyone, run on the promenade! – with resolutions implemented after all that biscuit-eating in a hammock. In particular, many of us have realised that the space that surrounds us is important – not just aesthetically, but for our sense of sanity, too. One of our clients specialises in workplace strategy. So, they’re now not only analysing how offices will look post-Covid-19 (downsizing, more Zooming), but at how they will feel. A correctly calibrated environment enhances a sense of overall wellness, improves efficiency and benefits the bottom line.
  2. It soon became apparent that we didn’t need Hollywood as much as we thought we did. (A lot has been written about Wonder Woman and her pals singing Imagine Tone deaf on every level.) Similarly, I think it may have dawned on at least some sporting fans that the ludicrous sums showered on young men to play soccer is not the best of deals. How much did we really miss these spectacles: the red carpet, and the green field? In our own industry, the Cannes ad festival was summarily cancelled to the disappointment of no one I’ve spoken to, and the Loeries are now magically free to enter. That speaks to the value of both, and I would respectfully suggest that a rethink of the gongs and glitter we dispense to one another is due.
  3. Those brands that think on their feet will almost certainly thrive. Of the dozens of Covid-19 emails I received over the last month, just a few stuck out. To Travelstart, many hats off for keeping my “travel dreams” alive and turning your distinct disadvantage into a good news story. Netflorist changed gear with a bit of a grating sound as they turned to delivering groceries and essentials (an inadvertently placed banner over some sanitary pads read “soak up the savings”), but they’ve acted with nimbleness and I hope it’s paid off. Afrihost’s timely data freebie was also appreciated, as was Virgin Active’s automatic suspension of club fees. And, happily, the United Nations has just granted me the sum of $750,000. All I have to do is send Sir Abraham Peace my name, passport number, and banking details.
  4. “Authentic” is an overused word, but I’m going to use it, because we need more of it. Brand truths, please, not confected pabulum. One of our other clients, Citadel, is the beneficiary of consistent and insightful messaging over many years. Their long-term investment approach encourages clients to “reach their remarkable”, and they have frequently partnered with remarkable individuals in this regard. I think of Jean de Villiers, Ronan Keating, and, of course, Siya Kolisi. Citadel’s TV work presented Kolisi as an unofficial national “coach” – encouraging us all as a team to stick to the game plan – in an honest, brand-consistent way. Yes, we used the word “together”. Yes, we showed people clapping. Yes, we had to use a lot of stock footage. But, if reports are to be believed, the work stood out, striking the right tone at a tricky time.
  5. Artificially generated social media “causes” have blissfully disappeared, and the more extreme, hectoring aspects of identity politics seem to have receded, too. Suddenly, there’s an actual cause, a universal reality, a shared experience. It’s been a privilege to work with a particular property group. They have turned the malls they own in places like Alexandra into sites for food distribution, using their trucks and infrastructure to get it to the right places. I’m glad we could play a small part in creating communication in support of their efforts. (Donations are welcome at Their initiative came from a place of rawness and realness, and I suspect the work of the foundation will continue after Covid-19 passes. Given the passion of its founders, it will be authentic work, too – not, say, of the cricketers in pink for the sake of breast cancer variety. (Will we ever see them in brown for the far unsexier cause of colon cancer, I wonder? Probably not. Doesn’t make for good Insta.)

So, then, how do we, as an industry, proceed? I think by (re)introducing as much (here’s that word again), authenticity as we can, and urging our clients to do the same. I’m not sure this is an environment for short-termism, and I imagine greenwashing, blackwashing, pinkwashing, and – within a couple of months, surely – virawashing will be taken less seriously by consumers. Rather, the question will be: What does your brand actually do for me? What is it really for?

As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, the answer cannot be virtue signalling: “buy[ing] your redemption against being a consumerist… do[ing] something for the environment… help[ing] starving children in Guatemala…” It turns out that the virtue of brands is pretty simple. To repeatedly and reliably exchange something of value, comfort and utility in exchange for currency. It’s what’s been keeping the whole show on the road all this time. That, it turns out, is useful.

Now, we can argue with the Marxists if the show is worth putting on in the first place. But, given that most of us are working with what we’ve got, maybe we could try to make it just a little more real. Can fashion be less throwaway? Is it necessary to rearrange the camera lenses on an iPhone every year? Do I need another pop-up whatever to fight a new hashtag? Or another competition meme encouraging us to paint our elbows yellow while humming the theme tune to MacGyver on TikTok?

No. What we need to do is let consumers know that brands are worth their time. Unlike your correspondent, many people have been questioning their roles in the world – and, by proxy, what they surround themselves with. Does your brand belong in this new environment? Is it worthy? And, by “worthy”, I mean:

  1. I hope it will be permissible in future to simply sell a product of quality, without having to surround it with a spurious, world-changing “purpose”. There is surely value in the mere act of making and buying something of value.
  2. That’s not to say consumers won’t want to hear about a brand’s good deeds, but here I mean real, relevant, increasingly localised, ongoing investment rather than social media humblebrags. Overall, though, consumers will probably be more immediately concerned about what brands can do for their lives.

As South Africa totters between lockdown levels, we, as an industry, need to think about our collective role in the world. It did occur to me that it was the days prior to lockdown that were potentially the strange ones. In all the selling and shaming and tweets and promos and hyperbole and cut and thrust and emojis and mobs and mayhem, did we truly believe that what we were doing was normal? DM/BM


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