Designer Life
7 minute read

The Art of Virtue Signaling: Why so Many Brands Get It Wrong

Micah helps businesses craft meaningful engagement through branding, illustration, and design.

virtue signaling - noun [Singular]

an effort to demonstrate one's high moral standing by expressing opinions on political and social issues that will likely be agreeable to others, often with little or no intent to act on said opinions

The term “virtue signaling” was coined in 2015, and from the start, its connotations have been purely negative. No one wants to be called a virtue signaler, but let’s be real, who among us can honestly claim to have never enjoyed the ego high of hinting at their own goodness? Nobody, but that’s ok.

We’re social beings. We seek connection and meaning through common beliefs. We rally around causes and accomplish incredible feats because we dare to share our convictions—even if that means bragging a little.

Here’s where things get tricky.

Individuals aren’t the only virtue signalers. Companies do it too. A lot. And it only makes sense. Companies depend on the good graces of their customers: if there’s a lucrative opportunity to align with a popular sentiment among consumers, they’ll pounce.

Sadly, many brands overshoot the subtleties of virtue signaling. They preach and posture and end up alienating the very people they’re trying to impress. What’s going on? What makes otherwise respectable companies howl like profit hounds when showing support for important social issues?

Virtual signaling
Sometimes, big brands simply spread their virtue feathers a bit too far.

Big Brand Virtue Debacles

Out in the wilds of social media, hidden dangers lurk behind every microinteraction, but if businesses learn the terrain and prevailing customs, they can avoid the common pitfalls of virtue signaling gone sour.

Bad Track Record

When a company’s history of blatant disregard for an issue gives way to sudden support, people get suspicious, even more so when the company’s newfound stance aligns with a seismic shift in public opinion.

It’s possible that there’s been a change of heart, a realization that the actions or omissions of past regimes were wrong, but it’s galling when a newly-enlightened brand begins speaking as an authority on a decades-old issue.

A company is allowed to change its beliefs, but when that happens, it should be willing to establish a track record as an ally before becoming a leading voice.

Too Soon…

Shared public moments and movements have a way of unifying people, but they’re power-packed with emotions that aren’t to be trifled with. Even with the best of intentions, companies that choose to chime in at the height of these momentous occasions are playing with fire.

Capitalizing on cultural moments, particularly those of a tragic nature, by mixing a message of concern with shameless self-promotion is a surefire path to reputation annihilation.

What is virtue signaling?
Businesses have zero reasons to be indignant when facing public scorn for mixing condolences with flagrant marketing.

Charitable Half-Truths

“For every dollar spent, we’ll give…”

In recent years, the “give-back” ethos has become a popular differentiator among startups and business-to-consumer brands. Despite the noble intentions of early-adopters, the practice has morphed into an obligatory item to include in pitch decks and calls to action.

For businesses, the give-back strategy is a sustainable source of virtue-cred, and it’s virtually foolproof. Unless, of course, the beneficence is a boondoggle.

Time and again, companies have faced backlash for misrepresenting their charitable endeavors. Maybe the giving-back is cloaked in ambiguous wording and decidedly less substantial than advertised. Perhaps it’s laden with fine print and capped at predetermined amounts.

Virtue signaling definition.
By and large, individuals don't tether charitable giving to a long list of terms and conditions, and neither should companies.

Then, there are those clever devils who simply bake the charity into the price of their goods and “generously” pass along the extra profits—what a sacrifice.

When a company chooses to manipulate with morality, then misleads about the nature of its giving and customers find out, the public disgrace that follows lasts forever.

Tone Deaf

In addition to being heated, political and social issues are incredibly nuanced, and viewpoints often lie on a spectrum that is heavily influenced by individual experience. So, when a company boorishly proclaims a bold stance, there’s a chance that even those who agree in principle may be provoked.

The old adage rings true: It’s less about what you say and more about how you say it.

We Get It!

Every now and then, it’s nice to hear that a business is doing the right thing, but incessant virtue signaling is a great remedy for people who can’t roll their eyes. There’s a limit to the amount of virtue that people can stomach. Crafting every marketing message around a cause and linking all of our inconsequential purchasing decisions to ethical integrity is exhausting.

Arrogant and Hostile

Some companies are caustic about their causes, and it’s not because they’re tone deaf—it’s because they’re arrogant and hostile towards anyone who dares to see things differently.

The message is implicit, “Not only do we support this really great cause, but if you don’t align with us, you’re awful.”

That’s just not true. The notion that a world of billions must subscribe to a moral code curated by big brands is one of the grandest delusions of corporate vanity.

Companies that create divides may earn kudos from a few fiercely polarized souls, but they will ultimately isolate themselves from large segments of the population who find their radicalization off-putting.

Questionable Priorities

This one’s pretty simple. What does it say when a business invests more in a self-righteous ad campaign than it spends in support of the issue its backing?

  1. The company cares more about bringing attention to itself than the issue.
  2. Its priorities are out of whack.
Virtue signaling example.
It's blatantly obvious when a business seeks the spotlight by piggybacking on a loaded cultural concern.

5 Common Sense Questions for Corporate Virtue Signaling

With a little self-awareness and a touch of class, virtue signaling can be a normal and healthy aspect of promoting a business, but there are challenges that require caution. To help, we’ve outlined five common sense questions that any organization can ask before banging their virtue drum.

  1. How would this message sound if it wasn't a business saying it, but a person?

    Like some tactless, dinner party humble-bragger? Maybe an angry uncle who ruins holidays with his politically charged one-liners?

    Or will it sound like someone who earnestly wants to do what is right while thoughtfully encouraging others to do the same?

  2. Are we committed to this for the long haul?

    Or are we just doing this to seem relevant and match the temperature of the moment?

    Are we willing to make serious business decisions and sacrifices as an organization to back up what we're saying? If not, it's best to keep quiet on the issue.

  3. Are we adding value or just creating noise?

    Entering the fray with the sole intent of interjecting another strong opinion equals adding noise. Heaven knows we've got enough.

    Adding value looks like creating partnerships, sharing resources, building bridges, and taking the time to understand multiple points of view (even dissenting ones).

    Examples of virtue signaling.
    We've ample options for noise and distraction. Businesses entering the social impact arena can stand apart by lending resources before opinions.
  4. Are we making a statement or are we self-promoting?

    A statement says "this is where we stand as a business." A promotion says "this is what we offer to you the customer."

    Mixing the two, especially around sensitive issues, is dicey.

  5. Are we promoting personal opinions held by high-level executives with no one to hold them accountable?

    Or are we aligned with our employees, customers, and brand values? Enabling an executive's crusader complex is a perilous business practice.

    Moral posturing

Unmoved by Mock Altruism

It’s said we live in an age of outrage. Whether that’s true or not, we certainly have more access to outrageous media than ever. There are innumerable platforms peddling controversy and falsehood, and they’re all pulsing with an unbearable, do-or-die intensity. We’re in digital disarray, and everyone’s still figuring out how to navigate the whirling dunes of meaningless pixels and misinformation.

It’s no surprise, then, that people don’t appreciate it when big name brands come sauntering in like Charlton Heston handing out the ten commandments, expecting all to receive their inspired words with awe and wonder. No one pines for Moses and today’s masses are far too accustomed to well-coiffed brand marketing to be duped by bad actors, especially when it comes to social media, where the slightest whiff of insincerity can incite insurrection among a mob that’s supremely equipped to spit venom at voices deemed dishonest.

Social signals
Our daily digital odysseys are wildly disorienting and made all the more difficult by moral posturing and corporate hot air.

If a business chooses to champion a cause for the greater good of its bottom line, it shouldn’t be shocking when a highly skeptical, virtue-inundated public proves less-than-impressed by the mock altruism.

People don’t want impersonal, mega-rich corporations attempting to calibrate their moral compass. Better for big brands to focus on quality offerings and responsible business practices, even when there’s no promise the public will applaud (aka, character). Then, when it’s time to twirl that beautiful virtue baton, consumers can at least be confident that the expressions of goodwill are aboveboard and backed by action.

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What does virtue signal mean?

Use of the term virtue signaling varies, but in general, it is defined as an effort to demonstrate one’s high moral standing by expressing opinions on political and social issues that will likely be agreeable to others, often with little or no intent to act on said opinions.

Who coined the term virtue signaling?

The term "virtue signaling" was coined by conservative British journalist James Bartholomew in an April 2015 article written for The Spectator. The term was a reaction against what Bartholomew perceived to be an increase in people caustically expressing good intentions on social media.

What is the opposite of virtue signaling?

It’s difficult to define the opposite of virtue signaling since it takes so many forms, some much more harmful than others, but in general, it could be said that privately acting on one’s convictions without the hope or expectation of acknowledgment is the opposite of virtue signaling.

Why do we need branding?

A brand is the core promise that a company makes its customers. The purpose of branding is to promote and uphold that promise so that people know about it and believe in it. Without clear branding, people may not trust a company or understand why they should buy its goods or services.

What are the advantages of branding?

There are two major advantages of branding that make it so valuable to modern businesses: 1.) It helps consumers choose whether or not a company’s offering is for them—this is brand value; 2.) It’s a reminder of past experiences and interactions with a company—this is brand experience.