Brand Moral Leadership

Filed Under: Grow / Maintaining Strong Brands


Shaili Bhatt

Alum, Online Qualitative Research

Social injustices are amplified, as what happens in one—seemingly small or unnoticeable— community or cultural group can have profound effects on the rest of the country. The current social climate has changed—people are once again becoming vocal about what they perceive as social injustice and sharing their thoughts on how to be more empathetic in regards to the events and people around them.

The idea of having a moral compass was usually associated with individuals, but today’s brands are developing their own psyches and consciences, driven largely through their communications.

Standing out from the fray are brands that have decided to take moral leadership. Brands that have successfully ingrained this thinking into their culture have done so in two parts:

  • Social morality—we live in a global society with all of us being connected; no one lives in isolation.
  • Universal morality—a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for “all similarly situated individuals,” regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature.

A more tangible example of this can be seen with late-night comedians, and the viral support they received from their statements. Late-night comedians are brands in their own right that viewers bring into their homes each night. Millennials and Gen Z viewers especially look up to these hosts to be their voice and source of comfort in times of distress.

Brands that have a strong moral leadership often have an established foundation with multicultural audiences. They have diverse talent, they ingrain themselves in multicultural communities and causes, and they employ strategies (communications and product innovations) that address diversity. This gives them more authenticity and credibility when they take a stance.

Consumers are zeroing in on brands with a new lens—from moral leadership to the basics of brand empathy—with a healthy dose of sensitivity and discourse powered through social media.

A P&G communications campaign in Spring 2017 entitled “The Talk” went viral for its depiction of how African-American moms approach talking with their children about being a person of color in the U.S. This campaign was followed with praise and some controversy; while it can feel divisive to some, the active focus of its story on ethnic and cultural differences largely worked to bring audiences in our global society together as a community.

In a positive example of brand resiliency and leading conversations about diverse issues, brands that are making convincing plays in this space are unapologetic about where they stand. Diverse strategic communications like this can certainly be considered controversial, but they break through. Consumers notice when brands don’t stay up to date with current events and social discourse. What we’re seeing is that brands’ moral leadership is proving to be effective beyond an ad campaign; it can also be a response to current events and social issues.

CEOs are using their voices to make statements on behalf of their brands to make clear their companies’ values. An example of this is when Fortune 500 CEOs shared public responses  after the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville or, more recently, brands pulling their ads from Laura Ingraham’s show due to controversial tweets.

There is a word of caution for a lack of action; brands that are lacking in moral leadership, that try to ignore or avoid this narrative, can be perceived as being out of touch. Communications during periods of distress can be misconstrued, improperly digested, or even hijacked, presenting a different narrative altogether. Because consumers are bringing these brands into their homes, similar to a late-night TV host, they expect a social response or even actions taken, and it can be disappointing if a brand does otherwise.


It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Brands don’t have to start by leading conversations. While it is common sense to invest in brand architecture to build your brand voice, it is also valuable when brands strategize on which actions should be taken (if any) and how to frame their conversations with multicultural audiences in sincere, authentic ways. In this process, research can help to explore consumers’ current brand perceptions to uncover what connections are already there and what’s lacking.

Nevertheless, brands with an established multicultural foundation need to take the leap into moral leadership sooner rather than later, and that comes with some growing pains. That is where research can come in, to help refine the delivery and tonality, to find the right balance, to make sure any involvement reads as authentic as possible.

explore featured
Case studies

Hey, get our newsletter

join 5,000+ market research professionals
who “emerge smarter” with our insights