Local brand spotlights
Alongside our global rankings, we wanted to deep dive into three local markets: UK, US, China. In this section, we uncover key themes and insights at a market level, looking at how industry perceptions differ and which smaller or more local brands perform strongly against our conscious criteria.
UK Top 10
Alongside other top global performers, the UK top 10 includes the BBC, Oatly and adidas. Oatly’s strong performance stands out, especially given the brand’s relative youth and the fact that it’s in a consumer goods category (alternative milks) that few would have previously believed as having big creative and cultural potential. But Oatly has shown that taking a provocative stance on the norms of the food industry can drive fandom and usage at massive scale. Indeed, it scores highly for ‘helps me change my life’ and ‘is guided by strong beliefs’ and Oatly’s straightforward and charming tone is obviously resonating in a market that has historically been clinical and cold. Thanks to its smart blend of creativity and positivity, it’s also a great example of a young brand successfully balancing the need to be both responsive and responsible.
Meanwhile, a more established brand was also recognised in every category, scoring particularly highly for inspiring and engaging interactions. adidas stepped up during the pandemic, offering their fitness apps to anyone who wanted access to all content for free and creating a #hometeam campaign to keep their consumers engaged at home. The brand has had a relentless focus on sustainability through innovation, from its partnership with Parley for the Oceans, turning plastic waste into sneakers, through to its recent Primegreen recycled fabric, promoted in a sweet commercial starring Kermit the Frog alongside tennis legend Stan Smith. adidas has shown that the whole sustainability agenda can be desirable and exciting and that in the face of competition from younger brands like Allbirds and Veja, one of the market leaders can still dominate. The brand also underlined its commitment to to equality and inclusion last summer, when it retweeted Nike’s ‘For Once, Don't Do It’ response to the #BLM movement.
US Top 10
A surprise star performer in the US Top 10 is Glossier, which ranks in 2nd place. Glossier is a customer-centric brand inspired by real beauty, setting itself apart from the industry with make-up and skincare products that exemplify the ‘natural look’. This focus on celebrating consumers’ natural beauty positions Glossier as the highest scoring ‘inspiring’ brand in the US. The company’s use of a wide range of skin tones in their products and imagery evokes a sense of racial equity in an industry that can often treat white skin as the default, and this is reflected in their high scores for diversity and inclusion. The brand has built on this with a grant scheme for black-owned beauty businesses, set up in response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, donating $500k to foster a range of small businesses.
China Top 10
While some brands like Microsoft and Pfizer are just as strong in China, Chinese consumers scored some different brands in their Top 10, with Huawei taking the top spot. Huawei is seen as both innovative and socially responsible by Chinese consumers, reflecting the brand’s commitment to support the creation of a ‘fully connected, intelligent world’. As well as driving forward smart technology, the company is known for its work prioritising sustainable development.
Forward-looking fashion brands also buck the wider trend. Patagonia is a loved brand among Chinese young people, appreciated for their dedication to quality and sustainability. Dr Martens is seen as a brand that helps reflect consumers’ culture and identity, scoring highly for being culturally relevant and encouraging participation.
Finally, Beyond Meat sits in 10th place in China, which may be surprising given relatively low rates of vegetarianism. But going meat-free is a growing trend, and Beyond Meat’s innovative and sustainable alternative is resonating with the Chinese audience and is seen as culturally relevant, supported by a collaboration with Starbucks and KFC.
their industry trend
Some industry categories perform better than others. As we have noted, our global rankings are led by brands in technology, entertainment, mental and physical health, communications and convenience.
But other categories don’t fare as well - whether that’s because they’ve lacked relevance in the 2020s so far (for example, travel, mobility and luxury brands) or because they struggle to drive a positive, responsible perception in the world (for example, brands in finance, alcohol and fashion).
But there are some notable exceptions that we wanted to highlight and celebrate.
Tesla is a very interesting example. Its score is by no means perfect; it scores relatively poorly for ‘understands me’ and ‘plays an important role in my life’ as it's not accessible and frequently used by people on a massive scale - yet. But it does score highly in some aspects on both the responsive and responsible sides of the equation. For example, it’s seen as ‘constantly innovating’ and ‘speaks up for what’s right and wrong in the world’.
As such, Tesla represents a true disruptor – driving innovation, excitement, reform and calling out what’s wrong with the industry – but it’s not yet occupying a place in people’s hearts and their routines. It will be fascinating to see how this perception shifts as more and more people experience the brand first hand - rather than through the lens of social media and Elon Musk’s own hype.
Three brands stood out as bucking the industry trend within fashion, namely Uniqlo, Levi’s and Patagonia. Whilst fast fashion, high street fashion and luxury fashion brands all struggled to find a place in the rankings, these three brands all made various market Top 30 lists.
As you might expect, Patagonia scored well for ‘speaks up for what’s right and wrong in the world’. Uniqlo surprised us however, as it scored particularly strongly for ‘inspires diversity and inclusion’. It’s a brand that doesn’t always come top of mind in the context of D&I conversations amongst marketers (perhaps unfairly so), so it’s good to see that consumers recognise Uniqlo for consistently presenting different races, genders, ages and sizes in a positive and aspirational light to a mainstream audience. In the case of Levi’s, we were pleased to see that the brand's commitments to reduce water usage, and its encouragements to ‘Buy Better, Wear Longer’ are resonating at scale.
One brand that we were surprised to see not making the global list however was H&M. Despite launching their own ‘Conscious’ label, a well-advertised take-back programme and a new rental service, the brand has not yet escaped its negative associations with wastage and fast fashion.
Another brand whose own ‘conscious capitalism’ efforts seem to be cutting through was BlackRock. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s 2020 annual letter discussed how the events of the past year are helping to accelerate an economic transformation. And the brand’s vocal stance on ESG goals has driven its global competitors like Vanguard to take the idea of responsible investing seriously. This is made all the more impressive given how poorly financial brands tend to do in the rankings, given consumers fail to score them particularly highly overall (with Visa, Mastercard and Paypal the highest performing finance brands, featuring towards the middle of our global list).
Whilst few brands want to be seen as purely ‘social media’ brands these days (preferring to see themselves as entertainment, connection or just technology brands) it’s fair to say that what consumers would call social media didn’t perform too well.
Twitter scored surprisingly poorly on its moral scores (like ‘stands up for what’s right and wrong in the world’) and Facebook was in the bottom 50 globally despite (or you could argue, because of) huge usage during an election year, not to mention a pandemic. A brand to buck this downward social media trend was TikTok, which having launched globally only a few years ago, made the global 100 list and scored highly for ‘inspires community’. Indeed, it would have scored even more highly globally were it not for its poor ranking in the US, which was undoubtedly affected by the attempted Trump administration ban.
Top 10 Inspirational CEOs
Behind any conscious brand and business is an inspiring CEO who demonstrates leadership and commitment towards conscious initiatives and actions.
Our study also identified which brands consumers believe have the most inspirational CEOs, led by Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, who took the mantle in 2014 as Bill Gates relinquished his chairmanship.
Nadella has overseen a culture shift at Microsoft, aligning the company behind one mission ‘to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more’. He has also continued Gates’ focus on philanthropy, with Microsoft donating $1.9B to non-profits in 2020 alone.
Some of the top 10 inspiring CEOs, such as Elon Musk and Tim Cook, have become household names and brand assets in their own right, while others may have risen to the top by letting their brands and their visions do the talking. Dove in particular is a Unilever brand, therefore headed up by CEO Alan Jope, but through its brand voice speaking up for body positivity and diversity, consumers highlighted Dove as having inspiring leadership.
CeCe Morken took the CEO role at Headspace in January 2021, as founders Andy Puddicome and Rich Pierson transitioned into roles as Chairmen of the Board. Morken headed up Headspace’s Covid-19 response, and led the introduction of the Headspace Promise, which commits to providing mindfulness and meditation to groups such as healthcare workers and those who have lost their jobs resulting from the pandemic. These actions exemplify Headspace’s strong positioning in the Conscious Brands 100.
Jeff Bezos (who also owns The Washington Post and Blue Origin) is notable by his absence from the list. This is something of a surprise given how highly consumers rank Amazon for its levels of innovation, as well as the fact that Bezos has led the company since founding it out of his garage in Seattle in 1994. Bezos is actually due to step down as CEO in late 2021, so it will be interesting to see who steps up—and whether they fare any better in the public imagination.