Aligning values: Responsible media and brand messaging

To be effective in these changing times, responsible media and brand messaging need to truly stack up. Graham Medcalf takes a look at how our uncertain world is making us rethink our values and consumer interactions.

In the 1980s, most marketing and advertising people of the era leaned heavily on the strategies contained in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It’s one of the few marketing books that has stood the test of time. Its strategies are based on the concept that in marketing, it’s not what you do to a product that’s important, but what you do to the mind of the prospect, and it explains how to get inside the heads of your target customers. 

But this is not the ’80s — it’s not even the 20th century. Today, people want more from brands. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still important to get into the minds of prospects and customers, but 21st century consumers want to interface with companies that champion the values and causes that are important to them. At the same time, media needs to align their offerings with causes and values that are close to the values sitting in their consumers’ hearts. 

The pandemic has drastically changed our approach to life; many of us now think about family, work and everything else differently, whether we’re part of the Great Resignation, carving out more family time or focusing on environmentally friendly habits. People are feeling bold, adventurous and more empowered than ever — realising that they’re not alive merely to make a living, but to have a true, authentic experience,
they’re regaining control in whatever areas they can.

Values & social responsibility

We’re living in momentous and mind-shifting times, and brand offerings need to reflect and shape the changed realities of consumer behaviour. Brands, products and services must step up to meet new needs for values such as sustainability and health and wellbeing that resonate with consumers.

There has been a huge move toward corporate social responsibility, driven largely by Gen Z and Millennial consumers, as well as a growing percentage of the workforce who want to work for organisations whose brand purpose and values align with theirs. 

“Clients understand the impact [social responsibility] has on their brands, in terms of customer loyalty and brand advocacy, as well as employee engagement, service quality, transformation efforts and ultimately their bottom line,” says Kim Pick, Executive Creative Director at VMLY&R. “We see it in the projects we do for clients and the projects we set out to do [for ourselves]. Our agency philosophy is to ‘make a meaningful difference’, and our work for government clients is very much focused on social change — reducing injury and accidents, improving health outcomes and equity, and improving access to services and information.”

Today’s products and services reflect a shift towards more ethical, sustainable and environmentally conscious lifestyles, embracing more diverse audiences. There are plenty of examples of brands picking up the baton and working with an accepting media, hungry for content.

Taking audiences inside her rural life in Nadia’s Farm via Discovery, with links to My Food Bag, celebrity chef and food writer Nadia Lim is a prime example, as is TVNZ’s Eat Well For Less?, sponsored by Countdown. Both have latched onto changes in consumer behaviour, including working from home and spending less time on cooking, while acknowledging that consumers still want to look and feel good.

New Zealand consumers do prioritise many other values when parting with their dollars, though. Purchasing electric vehicles (EVs) is one of the ‘save the planet’ values that has seen Kiwis pay more (despite the government subsidy) on vehicles that limit the range in which they can travel while increasing their energy fill-up time. There’s no doubt that Kiwis are socially conscious, and both marketers and the media have tried to go along with that.  

Trade Me is one brand that seems to be surfing the new ‘kindness’ wave, which despite having become a prime ministerial meme is a value treasured by those living in the new age of Aotearoa. Sally Feinson, Trade Me’s Director of Brand, Marketing & Communications, says, “Our brand values are central to everything we do at Trade Me — from the way we work together to the way we communicate with our large and diverse audience. We’ve worked hard to make sure our brand personality traits are intrinsically linked with our values, so that our audience experience the Trade Me brand in the most authentic way possible.” 

Every year, Trade Me supports hundreds of local charities by waiving fees so they can use the platform to raise money. This includes working with selected charities to find out what items they need the most, then making the items available for purchase in the Kindness Store. Kiwis are encouraged to check out the Kindness Store, pick an item, and pay for it. One hundred percent of proceeds have gone directly to the associated charities, which cater to those who’ve done it tough thanks to specific events such as
the Covid-19 lockdown periods and the Christchurch mosque attacks and, more generally, things like the hardships of winter.

The latest research from Trade Me shows Kiwis are embracing sustainability. In the last six months of 2021, 74 percent of Kiwis had bought something second-hand, and 58 percent of Kiwis had sold something
that was pre-loved.

oOh!media saw these values aligning with its own and executed three special builds in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Three bus shelters were transformed with bespoke, awning-like roofs into real-life Kindness Store shop fronts, complete with lightbox display cases featuring products from
the charities involved. 

And this wasn’t just a one off socially conscious project — oOh!media has also helped Adidas fight plastic waste through its latest campaign for Stan Smith sneakers, involving a custom built, eco-friendly shelter.

It’s important for marketers and media owners to understand the role values play in consumer behaviour. Research by Vrity in the US indicated 82 percent of people will pay more for a brand that shares their values, and although New Zealanders may have a different set of values to their American counterparts, it is safe to say that the same conclusion may be drawn in this country. 

What about Media responsibility?

The environment in which brands choose to distribute their messaging is important too, which is why media owners should take more care in their values alignments. The way companies behave has never been more important — or more visible. Mediaworks is an example of a company currently doing a full audit of its CSR (corporate social responsibility and ESG (environmental, social and governance) programmes, and how they guide their business practices. Mediaworks is, in fact, doing a comprehensive review of all of its policies.

“Local media partners are looking for ways to get a competitive edge over the large multinationals, and it’s in the space of social responsibility, ethics, environment, wellbeing, diversity and cultural competency that they can do that most effectively,” says VMLY&R’s Head of Media Alicia Tutty. “We’ll see more verticals and integration opportunities in this space as media partners look to show themselves as the responsible alternative.”

As a high-profile media organisation, TVNZ has a responsibility to lead the way when it comes to environmental, economic and social sustainability, both through the actions it takes and the content it shows
on its platforms. “We’re committed to ensuring we have a strong mix of diverse voices on screen and within the business, reflecting disability, gender identity, sexuality and ethnicity,” says Commercial Director Jodi O’Donnell. “It’s important to showcase all of Aotearoa. We’re also doing the mahi to embed sustainability into our organisation, and have a focus on reporting on climate change across our news and current affairs programming.”

Consumers are savvy and can see beyond an influencer and paid sponsorship, so the alignment of values has to be genuine to connect and impart an impact. Advocacy can be a powerful tool for connecting with consumers, but only if it’s reflective of a brand’s DNA. 

“TVNZ is a storytelling business,” says Jodi, “so we’re here to bring narratives to life through emotive audiovisuals.” 

Brands need to be true to themselves and authentic in whatever they do. “Sometimes, their brand or brand purpose will not lend itself to advocacy,” says Kim. “For other brands, advocacy is in their DNA; think the Body Shop or Patagonia — they’ve been doing it for decades. For instance, Patagonia’s brand purpose is: ‘Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.’” 

Stuff is guided by its mission to make Aotearoa a better place. It does this through its trustworthy journalism,
the ways it supports and engages with Kiwi communities, and the way it acts as a business. 

“We do this less to appeal to socially conscious consumers and more because it’s the right thing to do — for Aotearoa, its people and the planet,” says Joanna Norris, Stuff’s Chief Content Officer.

Some examples of that include trustworthy journalism. Stuff’s strategy with Pou Tiaki is about better reflecting te ao Ma¯ori and other multicultural perspectives, while its female-led brand Ensemble covers women’s issues in an intelligent, genuinely meaningful way.

The Forever Project is Stuff’s commitment to covering climate change, as well as the progress made to minimise emissions. As a member of the Climate Leaders Coalition, Stuff has made a commitment to reduce
its scope 1 and 2 emissions 25 percent by 2025 and is well on the way to doing so. Stuff’s Forever Fund is an initial $1 million commitment to investing in Kiwi businesses that have a positive effect on the environment, like Wild Clean.

Being the largest media organisation in New Zealand, with more journalists on the ground than any other publisher, means Stuff is connected to the issues that matter to local people. That’s why it swings in behind activities like Wasp Wipeout, and why it helped buy Te Ahu Patiki for the people of Christchurch. It’s why it has hosted some of New Zealand’s most iconic events, like Ports of Auckland Round the Bays, Central Districts Field Days and the Women of Influence programme. These types of content and activities strengthen the relationships Stuff has with its readers, and contribute to the high levels of loyalty and engagement from its audience. 

NZME has a similar philosophy. “When communicating the values of our sustainability commitment,
it needs to be done authentically, pragmatically and with a sense of purpose,” says NZME’s Chief Marketing Officer Katie Mills. “We need to be able to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. We take our responsibility seriously when using our platforms to share this information, and we’re constantly learning, evolving and improving,” 

Our Green Future is a content hub shared across NZME’s market-leading lifestyle brands and the New Zealand Herald, both online and in print. This all-new proposition brings together sustainability-related content that’s created by NZME’s leading lifestyle brands, and amplifies these important messages through various NZME channels. 

Our Green Future is designed to empower, inform and inspire Kiwis with information     about sustainability that they can take into their everyday lives. It brings together the best of sustainability across Driven,
Viva, OneRoof’s Homes We Love, Travel, Be Well, iHeartRadio and Canvas, weaving together broad interests through the common thread of sustainability. The hub helps collect together the conversations brands are having about sustainability and looking after the planet, and share these messages across a hugely diverse
range of audiences and consumer touchpoints.

Overall, more companies are rightly looking at their full supply chain and asking how their corporate social responsibility strategies, focus on environmental, social and governance, and diversity and inclusion initiatives impact the media they’re buying and where their ads appear. It’s a reallypositive step and ushering in a new era of positive brand guardianship among media planners. It moves media planning beyond the ‘safety checking’ role of blacklisting or whitelisting sites for brand safety towards a far more
proactive and strategic role in assessing the media contexts and content that brands should be appearing within and funding.

Ethical messaging

Increasingly, marketers and their agencies are defining policies for how and where advertising appears. Done properly, these need to cover a wide range of ethical issues including anti-fraud, informed data consent and funding of mis/disinformation. 

Independent media agency Together, for example, has built a set of custom programmatic algorithms called Algorithms for Good, which enable its clients to purchase inventory across content that promotes sustainability, diversity and wellbeing, as well as ensuring that traditional brand safety checks aren’t preventing diverse audiences from being reached. For example, traditional keyword blocking can negatively impact access to specific audiences inadvertently. These algorithms are tools that enable brands to feel confident in the content they’re adjacent to and supporting. 

“We feel very strongly that as a New Zealand-owned business, we should be at the forefront of ethical New Zealand media practice,” says Rufus Chuter, Managing Partner at Together.

It’s challenging, because often a traditional media metric like audience reach and media ethics will collide, and social media is a good example of this. 

“It’s a live discussion with a project right now: should we promote health and wellbeing content on Instagram, which is full of health and wellbeing enthusiasts, knowing that research shows the platform can actually damage mental health?” asks Rufus. “Are we better off finding those audiences somewhere else, or is that actually the right media context in which to make this point? These are all great questions to be asking. The answers are rarely simple, but more conscious media decision-making, whatever the end result, has to be a good thing.”

Like many others, Together is increasingly interrogating and sharing the environmental credentials of specific media platforms with its clients. A brand like Volvo can’t tell the world in a newspaper ad that it’s committed to climate change without first wanting to investigate the environmental impact of that newspaper. Quantifying the carbon footprint of a media plan and making media buying decisions based on it is increasingly common. 

Some advertising agencies see corporate social responsibility as an outdated idea because it was only ever conceived as a bolt-on to boost corporate reputation, never something that would organically grow
out of an organisation’s core. Put another way, it was created as a nice-to-have minor cost centre consigned to its own department and off to the side, not something fully and deeply baked into a company’s DNA, sense
of purpose or reason for being. 

For media agencies, tight quality controls have had to be put in place for programmatic buying. This usually involves the use of approved site lists and brand safety/content exclusion lists that are shaped by the individual requirements of clients as well as the ongoing scrutiny of local and international news and media. 

“Some clients are more sensitive to some issues than others and it can be a complex area,” says PHD Media CEO Nikki Grafton. “Our partnerships with media-vetting technology vendors help support our active efforts to avoid investing our clients’ advertising budgets across fraudulent inventory. We adopt and support industry initiatives to mitigate this, through technology-based solutions and through active management and oversight. We utilise audience and inventory curation tools to create bespoke targeting configurations that position our clients’ brands in the most relevant environments, against the most relevant audiences.”

Rainger & Rolfe sees the real challenge of true social and environmental responsibility as being highly nuanced and one that needs addressing throughout a business in a seamless way. The agency is currently running or co-running about 10 research projects a year on behalf of a wide range of clients, which it aggregates and monitors to form a rolling view of key cultural issues, defining conversations and the changing mood of New Zealanders.

Many brands don’t live their values, especially in hard times when profitability is hard to come by, and the pressure on media companies to be able to say, hand on heart, that they’re operating responsibly is only going to get stronger.  

This article was first published in the 2022 March/April issue of NZ Marketing magazine.

Graham Medcalf

About Graham Medcalf

Graham Medcalf is former Editor of NZ Marketing and regular contributor.

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