Section 1:  Moral Foundations Theory - a new way to understand brands


In a blog we wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed prescient to look to the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ in our attempt to understand the new set of circumstances we found ourselves in. The word is composed of two characters – 危机 – one signifying ‘danger’ and one signifying ‘opportunity’.

We have begun to see this duality play out in the way that brands are being judged based on how they have been reacting, behaving and communicating during the pandemic.

Insights from our ‘COVID Community’ of consumers and small business owners from the UK and the US, suggests that more than ever, what brands are doing is more important than what they are saying. Unless, of course, what they are saying is explaining what they are doing!

People display a heightened moral sensitivity to how ‘corporate America’ / UK businesses are behaving and which ‘side’ companies are on – with a new landscape of heroes and villains emerging. Critically, if a brand makes it into the news on account of doing something ‘bad’, or onto our radar as a result of doing something ‘good’ – we are not only taking notice, we are likely to change our behaviour as a result. The danger and the opportunity of the moment becomes self-evident.

Understanding how people are conducting themselves in this new moral atmosphere gives brands a crucial leg up in terms of driving their response and framing their messaging. It is here that Johnathan Haidt’s ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ offers a helpful framework for thinking and acting. The theory proposes that each one of us comes equipped with ‘intuitive ethics’, which is an innate capacity to feel flashes of approval or disapproval towards certain patterns of human behaviour. These unconscious intuitions reflect pre-wired instincts that we evolved in response to the pressures of our prehistoric environment.

Haidt outlines six common themes, which reflect different aspects of our ‘intuitive ethics’ as shown in the chart below


While we are all pre-wired with these moral foundations, each of them can be either amplified or toned down by factors such as our personality, our experiences and our environment.




To test our assumptions we asked our community to tell us about any brands/companies they think better or worse of as a result of something they have said or done in response to the pandemic.

Section 2 reveals what we found for just one of the foundations. Click here to read more.