Online brands need to ‘walk the talk’ in the world of the ethical consumer

Ever since we started Brands2Life we’ve had a speciality in working with online brands. We’ve been lucky enough to help shape the stories and strategies of some of the world’s largest and many fast-growing start-ups. When they’ve had good news, we’ve shouted it from the rooftops and, if they have bad news, we’ve worked to help minimise the damage.

2020 looks like being a massive year for the world’s online leaders. Regulators are looking to take chunks out of their business models; investors want bottom-line as well as top-line results; and consumers are expecting way more from the brands they use than ever before.

Whilst most people are familiar with protests against the big energy and financial services companies and, to some extent, the Big Four tech firms, consumer attitudes to the broader online sector are less well-documented. So, we decided to drill down on what consumers in the US and Europe really expect from the web and app companies they use and find out what attracts them and what turns them off.

It’s clear from the results that online brands of all sizes, not just the giants, need to take action and address the areas where they fall short as a matter of urgency if they are to continue to survive and prosper.

The full results can we found in our report – ‘WALK THE TALK – What consumers expect from today’s online brands’.


Our report reveals that consumer attitudes are changing rapidly. The ‘cancel culture’ is here to stay and is set to grow. Consumers are much less happy to put up with poor service and security and want to be treated as individuals. In addition, they want to know more about the companies behind these websites and apps and how they measure up as corporate citizens. And they’re prepared to stop using a product or service if they’re not happy.

41% of those surveyed have stopped using an online brand in the last year – predominantly because of poor service or privacy and security short-comings but also because of how they treat staff and suppliers; the respect they pay to markets they operate in; and their activities around societal issues such as climate change.

Conversely consumers say that, if a brand demonstrates a real commitment in terms of good corporate citizenship, they are more likely to use it (if they believe them). Honesty and authenticity rank very high on the consumer checklist when assessing the brands they use.
These findings have important implications for the narrative and communications strategies of online brands of all sizes. The focus on building revenues and user numbers in isolation have gone and a far more holistic approach to narrative is required.

In the context of this challenge, a stand-out brand idea, best-in-class narrative and communications strategy are all critical success factors.


Get the brand idea right and everything else falls into place. If you can find that two-or-three-word concept that brings together your vision, values, purpose, proposition and key messages – and it isn’t easy – then an inspiring narrative that works for internal and external stakeholders won’t be far away. It will be there, maybe hidden away, the reason why the business exists and continues to thrive.
The concept should scale from the product and service proposition all the way up to the brand’s contribution to society. When staff see it, they should be inspired to enthuse about their company and products. And it will be the ‘red thread’ that runs through all the brand’s communications.


With the brand idea as a foundation, brands need to form a broader narrative that takes into account the perspectives of all existing and potential stakeholders extending beyond the usual suspects (staff, customers, investors, media and influencers) to encompass partners in the supply (and distribution) chain, local communities, politicians, regulators, pressure groups and activists.

In parallel the narrative needs to stretch from the core commercial/consumer proposition to encompass the brand’s contribution to society. What is it putting back in return for all those eyeballs, clicks and dollars? The distinct strengths of each individual brand will dictate what they dial up whether it be its excellence as an employer; its work with disadvantaged groups; or its pre-eminent position in carbon emissions reduction. The more societal issues the brand can demonstrate a strong position on the better.

Part of this process will also be an assessment of the brand’s vulnerabilities followed by a discussion with the leadership as to how any can be improved. For example, if customer service is outsourced can the team be resourced and trained so that they pick up on the idiosyncrasies of each country they serve and demonstrate empathy. If the brand is unregulated but competes with regulated businesses can it build a relationship with the regulator and relevant influencers to show its commitment to operational excellence.

Related to this, once the central pillars of the narrative are established, they need to be stress-tested. How would they stand up if the size of the business doubled in a year? What if a presence in three countries became ten? What if we introduced premium services with a heightened expectation around customer service? And what if we had a financial transaction that threw us into the spotlight?


Once a winning narrative has been agreed brands need to put in place a creative communications strategy that raises them above the pack. Too many online brands still adhere to the ‘if you build it they will come’ school of thinking. We know from our work with brands such as Groupon, Just Eat, LinkedIn and Zoopla that investing in PR and communications, especially consumer, requires a leap of faith (and, in most cases, a significant investment in paid including television). And, if you take that leap, execute well, and measure the business impact, that courage will be re-paid.

It’s not just about the product story as I mentioned earlier. In a world where consumers want to know about the business behind the brand as well as the product there needs to be an investment in corporate communications as well. Given good corporate visibility is such a competitive field – every brand from every sector wants it – one must be sure that the aspects of the business promoted are up with the best and are as excellent as claimed. Consumers are unforgiving if they are duped.

Granted many of these points aren’t new news. But the results of this report demonstrate that the challenge is far greater than many leaders might have thought. It all adds a considerable number of items to the leadership and comms teams ‘To Do’ lists. They will take time, money and, no little, courage. But they need to be done as a matter of urgency in a ‘cancel culture’ world. Today’s consumers won’t hesitate to punish brands that don’t ‘walk the talk’.

Written by Giles Fraser, Co-Founder, Brands2Life

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Emily Reid