The myth of Western exceptionalism: why it’s cool, or at least convenient, to care everywhere

  • In a previous article on these pages, we heralded social purpose as the new brand imperative. We looked at examples of brands going beyond the elimination of negatives (old era CSR) to doing active positive good in the world (new era Social Purpose). Since then, there has been much global evidence; from Cannes to the financial pages; to validate this point of view that brands do indeed do well when they do good, that is to say when they have a social purpose.

    Of course, what constitutes doing good is highly nuanced across different cultures. In the west, it is sometimes assumed that engagement with social issues must be limited to countries like the UK and US, who have the economic luxury of caring about issues beyond personal need. At the very least, the western-centric sustainability narrative of recent years has firmly cast emerging economies as the bad guys when it comes to global warming – pursuing economic growth at any cost. Indeed we hear in many UK groups a ‘why bother if 1 billion Chinese aren’t doing their bit’ attitude.

    But is Western exceptionalism really the case, and if so then what hope is there for brands to develop a global standpoint on these issues?

    On first examination, global polls and groups seem to suggest that there is indeed a chasm of concern: Western Europe and the USA leading the way in awareness and understanding of the big issues facing our world. But on closer inspection it’s not quite that simple.

    Yes, in countries like the US and UK, caring about the wider world is becoming ever more mainstream. But amongst the more affluent Chinese, for example, we are also seeing a growing emphasis on the desire to go beyond conspicuous consumption with cultural awareness as the new status symbol. This includes being world savvy and as such knowledgeable about some of the bigger global issues like climate change. Similarly we are seeing the apathy lifting in Japan as the youth of Tokyo take up ‘causes’ as a lifestyle choice. We may start to see a top-down effect in the status value of being a more conscious consumer, something luxury brands are already picking up on.

    So we are seeing a gradual attitude shift… but what about behaviour, since that is what really matters? As with so much in life what people say and what they do is quite different. Whilst conversation around climate and environment might not be as prevalent in China currently, we shouldn’t assume that this means that consumers do not do their part. In fact, in the National Geographic’s latest Greendex score India, China, South Korea, Brazil and Argentina come way above Germany, UK and the USA across a number of sustainable behaviour measures.

    To this point the motivation to behave in a sustainable way does not necessarily need to be a higher moral concern driven by deep engagement with an idealistic agenda… and this is as true for consumers as it is for brands. In a world of limited resources it just makes sense that consumers who have less tend to re-use more and generally be less wasteful. It is in their own personal interest to do so. So it is the case for brands: protecting the people you serve and the resources you rely on just makes good sense. Furthermore, it feels like in this new era of social purpose marketing, acknowledging this fact goes a long way to helping overcome the cynicism and critique of ‘greenwashing’ that was so prevalent last time around.

    The challenge remains however, of finding the right issue to focus on for a brand across a globally diverse spectrum of what and how much people care about key issues. Is it best to focus on a specific program or a wider issue; on people or on planet, or both?

    As we might expect where economic development is a concern, the focus on people issues: poverty, social justice and employment dominate the conversation. On the other hand it has typically been seen as a ‘luxury’ of greater economic security to prioritize planetary concerns such as climate change.

    In reality however this seems to depend more on the level at which the idea is explained. Translating issues like Climate Change through the more immediate impact of extreme weather events, highlighting resource scarcity and water shortages in a time of drought, focusing on future through family all help bring the bigger intangible issues to a much more human and immediate scale and blur the people planet distinction.

    Back, therefore, to our question posed at the start: the potential for global brands to define a social purpose that transcends country borders. The growing relevance of social issues worldwide, from both a behavioural and attitudinal perspective, suggests that brands can tap into social need in a way that resonates in multiple markets. The key is finding that universal human truth that brings global relevance to the issue, that helps individuals understand why they should care, and in turn why you care.

    Look at Pampers’ partnership with UNICEF, which, through tackling an issue universally resonant for mums – maternal and newborn mortality – has significantly increased sales globally while eliminating the threat of tetanus for women and their newborn babies in 15 countries. Or Dove’s Real Beauty campaign that taps into universal female concerns around self-image and confidence.

    As consumer attitudes towards issues of social good change around the world, and more and more brands acknowledge the value of defining a social purpose, we predict more exciting campaigns that take a global stand on the world’s most pressing problems. This definitely isn’t just a western thing.