by Vikash Gajjar (@VikashGajjar) Understanding what’s happening matters more than ever, but it’s no longer enough for brands to just “join the conversation” to up their cultural relevance. Brands need to stand up and stand for something. Sponsoring events and jumping onto trending hashtags are now hygiene.

‘New brand voice’

At some point in the last two years, you’ve probably come across an article or a Twitter thread emphatically encouraging brands to become more human with a distinct voice, on social and digital in general and when interacting with consumers on these platforms in particular. So, that’s what brands fixated themselves on doing. For the most part, this translated into brands personifying themselves as a singular individual: speaking in first person and referring to themselves as “I”, even when it didn’t make sense.

This ‘new brand voice’ opened up possibilities when it came to social content and community management. Some brands found themselves enjoying much success when organically tagging onto trending topics and conversations on platforms such as Twitter — others, quite simply, got dragged — all in the quest to become culturally relevant.

We’re currently living in a tight economic climate that breeds savvy consumers, who’re spoilt for choice but need to make their money stretch further. The fundamentals then, such as price point and value, are now even more considered. But, for brands to truly cut through the clutter, their relevance is as vital as their product price point — and relevance is no longer just about capitalising on key moments or being culturally in tune or passively supportive.

Need to stand up

In a trend report highlighting the fastest-evolving topics on Twitter between January 2006 and June 2019, the conversations shaping culture today centre on “well-being”, “one planet” and “my identity”. Inherently, these topics are drivers for positive change in the world we live in and, since they make up the majority of conversations on social media, they’re a fair indicator of what’s important to our consumers, of what’s relevant.

A 2019 study by MAGNA and Twitter revealed that consumers think brands should be involved in social issues and movements, more so than in sponsoring events and latching onto trends (which is what most brands in South Africa have been doing). In today’s information-rich and mobile-centric world, consumers are more informed than ever on practically everything, especially social causes. They know more, so they care more, so they want to make more of a difference because they now know how to. In turn, they demand the same of their brands.

For far too long, brands have gotten away with passive support on topics neither too controversial nor too polarising. But it’s 2020. It’s not enough to print the rainbow flag on the inside of a fries box for the month of Pride to show your support for the LGBTQI+ community, or to unexpectedly change the colour of your logo in solidarity of a cause that everyone else is now suddenly supporting. What are you doing to actually uphold your claim, other than to state your support? Are you donating a portion of your profit? Are you uplifting and enabling that which you support? Social media has given everyone a voice, so how are you contributing towards a social movement, other than lending your own?

Holistic support

More often than not, brands fear wholly supporting a cause or social movement because of the consumers it may polarise. Brands fear picking a side. But getting a firm “no” is much better than a consumer sitting on the fence.

As humans, we inherently want to do good. We want the brands we support to do the same. But we want them to do it properly, not superfluously. In 2020, brands need to chase social trends less and, instead, focus on backing something that they can support holistically, together with their consumers, and impact culture for the better.


Vikash GajjarVikash Gajjar (@VikashGajjar) studied a year of accounting before realising he was meant to work in a more-creative field, so he swapped balance sheets for (what was then) 140-character tweets. He is currently a digital content producer at M&C Saatchi Abel, driving relevant and engaging content creation that’s topical and resonant on some of South Africa’s leading brands.

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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