As the doomsday clock moves closer to midnight, climate change faces irreparable levels and world politics seem to celebrate maximum disruption on either side, it’s tough to know what we, as individuals can do to make the world a better place. Sure, we recycle, cut down on meat intake, drive less, plant more - but it seems impossible to make a big difference unless you’re either in a position of power or are a corporation looking to do good. But who helps the brands along the path of righteousness? Step forward Jim Moriarty - 72andSunny’s Director of Brand Citizenship.

Every single company in the world, of all time, came into existence for a reason, and that reason was to better society or the planet.

“There’s a guy named Michael Porter,” Moriarty tells me whilst trying to explain what a Director of Brand Citizenship actually does, “who literally wrote the books on competitive advantage. He believes that every single company in the world, of all time, came into existence for a reason, and that reason was to better society or the planet. They were all solving a problem.”

Enlisted to help brands remember the essence of why they started, and to connect marketing to that, Moriarty’s tenure within the agency began after they helped with the Surfrider Foundation, the activist network he ran prior to joining. Essentially “surfers against sewage,” the foundation saw Moriarty take on many issues facing the ocean today - water quality, plastics, etc. Alongside that, his experience in technology companies like SAP in Germany and AI-based search engines meant that the power of activism was matched with the problem-solving facets of technology.

Above: A Surfrider bumper sticker

Joining the company in 2015, it quickly became apparent to Moriarty that, to perform his duties with any kind of success, he’d had to embed himself within the mechanics of the customer teams. “Unless it’s a standalone brand citizenship project,” he explains, “I get right alongside strategy, producers and the brand. It's important that, as we’re figuring out the process, approach and engagement, I’m another voice pushing to engage the consumers and not just talk at them. We don’t treat brand citizenship as its own department here, we treat it as a philosophy across all teams.”

An example of brand citizenship in practice comes from 72andSunny’s work with Seventh Generation, one of Moriarty’s favourite projects. Challenged with making this “absolutely fantastic blue-chip sustainability consumer products company” into a strong consumer brand, the team had to figure out how to deliver a message that would have a societal impact.

It’s not necessarily about an ethical advertisement, it’s really about truth and impact in marketing.

The key insight was label disclosure. “In the United States,” says Moriarty, “governments do not require that consumer products disclose the ingredients in a product. You can easily have self-care products or cleaning products have toxic ingredients and have the consumer not know about them.” 

Seventh Generation – Vajingle

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With this in mind, the agency did two things. The first was to bring in a likeable name - SNL’s Maya Rudolph - as a consumer connection point. “It was important that she wasn’t just a kind of candy to the brand,” he points out. “We made sure we brought her in, in a funny, meaningful way.” The campaign's initial execution, Vajingle, was an extended commercial that saw Rudolph seemingly freestyle an epic ‘vagina jingle’, advising women to make sure the tampons they use don’t contain hidden chemicals. Entertaining and funny, and filled with the comedienne’s trademark performance charm, the spot was a non-preachy eye-opener for viewers.

However, it was with the second stage of the campaign that the brand citizenship philosophy came into practice. Positioning Rudolf as an activist over brand figurehead, a push for a change in label disclosure laws saw her testify in front of the Federal Government. Having the brand as a central element in a push for societal change, explains Moriarty, sums up the ethos of brand citizenship. “It’s not necessarily about an ethical advertisement,” he maintains, “it’s really about truth and impact in marketing. It’s more than advertising; it’s a corporate strategy, and, in the case of Seventh Generation, a policy change. We ask consumers to take a role and drive change from the bottom up.”

One of the larger frustrations with this role is seeing the potential for brands to take meaningful stands on issues they’re directly connected with, but then have them still not want to do so.

Obviously, persuading brands to lobby governments for policy changes is riskier than suggesting a pantone adjustment, so is it a tough sell? Moriarty sums it up: “It takes a champion at a high level to not just sign off on this kind of strategy, but also get behind it. It’s not a tough conversation at all, if you have that, but will be a very tough conversation if you don’t. I have to ask myself, would this person defend this issue with their friends? If they would, then they’ll stand behind it on stage at a marketing conference or talk to the board of directors, but it needs to be personal to them. If it’s not, it won’t work long term.

“One of the larger frustrations with this role,” he continues, “is seeing the potential for brands to take meaningful stands on issues they’re directly connected with, but then have them still not want to do so.” Taking a stand, as we’ve seen with recent work from Nike and Gillette, can pay dividends not only in terms of press column inches but also consumer loyalty. Those two examples are givens, but is everyone doing it for the right reasons? “Yeah, brands with purpose are doing quite well right now” Moriarty tactfully responds. “It is trendy but I don’t think it’s a trend that’s going to go away. It’ll always attract charlatans for the ‘sugar hit’, but short-term thinking for brands is worthless, as this is a very long-term subject.”

Above: Patagonia's provocative Common Threads Initiative, encouraging consumers not to buy what they don't need

When quizzed on brands that are doing it well, Moriarty has a clear favourite. “The OG is Patagonia,” he remarks. “I believe there are nine different approach strategies that a brand can take to engage consumers and they are crushing it in every single one of those areas.“

Not every brand needs to try and be Patagonia, some can just be silly and that’s enough.

Patagonia, a self-confessed ‘activist company’, has a brand built on their environmental and political standing, but how does it work for corporations that encompass hundreds of products, globally? “Unilever is exceptional in a really specific way. They weren’t born in the way that Patagonia was, but they’ve doubled down in recent years - adjusting their corporate and marketing strategy. Unlike brands like Warby Parker [an eyewear company that gives a percentage of proceeds to local environmental organisations], Toms or Patagonia, Unilever had to massively adjust their corporate strategy direction.”

The key to success, it seems, is authenticity. “As more and more brands are seeing that they must have a reason for existing in the world,” he explains, “they struggle and wrestle with how to best represent that purpose. The really important part is that, even though all brands must have a reason for existing, it doesn’t mean that they need to talk about it all of the time. Not every brand needs to try and be Patagonia, some can just be silly and that’s enough.”

Above: Emma Gonzalez observing 6 minutes and 20 seconds of silence while addressing the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC

As has been clear from consumer response, whilst authentic engagement is celebrated, consumers can smell insincerity instantly. Moriarty has stated on several occasions that Emma Gonzalez, Parkland shooting survivor and activist, is his ‘spirit animal’, taking the mantra WWEGD [What Would Emma Gonzalez Do?] when judging the voice of any project. “It’s all epitomized in a button that she was wearing for quite a while,” he explains. “It said ‘We call BS’, which encapsulates the idea that these kids are coming into culture not believing you.

“It says: ‘you need to earn my trust, you need to earn my support, and, essentially, you need to earn my money’. They’re saying, ‘if you want me to buy your product, you need to stand for something that I also believe in’. That’s what brands need to do authentically; their actions must speak louder than words.”