How to build purposeful campaigns to drive positive change 

March 08, 2023

When it comes to ‘hot topics’ in the responsible business space, how to connect the dots between your business, your marketing and your ESG commitments is right at the top. Many organisations are reaching the stage where they’ve put ESG strategy in place behind the scenes or are running some brilliant impact initiatives or purpose-led work, but don’t know how to talk about it – whether that’s a rich narrative that links your commitments to your brand, or one-off campaigns to fundraise, raise awareness, launch an ESG product or support a social cause. 

And there are plenty of reasons for this. Fear of purpose washing (cousin of greenwashing) is something we are seeing all too often, especially with the rise of new terms like greenhushing (when a company chooses to under communicate their environmental commitments to avoid scrutiny). But there are more practical reasons too, from marketing budgets prioritised on short-term targets and products, to mixed levels of buy-in internally. 

We believe that marketing and communications professionals, together with business leaders and organisations, have a responsibility to use their skills, resource and exposure to communicate and advocate around what matters. Consumer behaviour has huge influence on the direction of our physical and social environment and economy, so brands have the power to influence one step ahead. Successful purposeful campaigns can drive lasting positive change for people, the planet and society and we believe that we all have a part to play in building the world we want to live in.   

In our latest webinar for marketing and communications professionals looking to speak up and make a difference, we discussed exactly this: how to build purposeful campaigns to drive positive change. Read on for top tips on how to: 

  • Shape a strong narrative that aligns with your brand, purpose and values,
  • Think outside the box to create compelling campaigns which drive genuine, sustainable change and engage multiple stakeholders,
  • Launch a campaign, measure success and maintain momentum.

Our experts 

We were delighted to be joined by a great panel experienced in leveraging brands to create positive social change: 

Jacqueline Ellis-Jones joined us from B Corp Pip & Nut where she leads as Marketing Director, previously Head of Brand Comms at Ella’s Kitchen and lead on the Great Daffodil Appeal for Marie Curie.  

John O’Brien joined us as Managing Partner at Omnicom’s ONE HUNDRED agency group, bringing his ESG mindset as founder of Anthropy, a unique national gathering of leaders from all sectors to envision a brighter future, and leader on campaigns such as The Jubilee Hour, Remember WW1 and Valuable 500.  

Joe Cross gave his insight as an Angel Investor, with a lens on impact investing around climate, health and inefficiencies, and as former Global Marketing/Comms Head and US General Manager of Wise (TransferWise). 

Last but not least, we were joined by Verity’s own co-founder and CEO Debra Sobel, both facilitating the conversation and bringing her 25 years’ experience in national and global purposeful campaigns, from documentaries on climate change to today’s work with our clients – responsible businesses who want to communicate strategy meaningfully for maximum advocacy, engagement and impact.  

Top 5 takeouts:

  1. Get the fundamentals right – good corporate citizenship and license to operate 

Before you start any purpose-led campaign, make sure your back office is in order, and there isn’t a disconnect between the impact you say you want to have, and the impact you have in reality. In simple terms, if you put your head up and shout about caring for the environment, make sure your core products don’t cause significant harm to it. If gender equality is your cause, make sure you are making tangible steps yourselves to improve it. 

  1. Find your mission and make sure your actions match your commitments 

You want to lend your voice to the topic you are most able to impact positively. This can be a combination of your leaders, employees and customers’ values, but it also needs to align to your core deliverables, as this is where you are most aligned to lead. 

  1. Show us your values 

Once you know what you stand for, don’t be afraid to talk about it, as this is where you will see a double benefit – to the success of your business as you increase brand equity, and to the positive impact you are able to influence in the world. 

  1. Align your teams 

It is no good if your leadership teams are divided on what is important. You need all teams to be working towards the same goals, and working together momentum can be much higher, for example when your sustainability and marketing teams align. 

  1. Reframe your thinking: your existing customers are your army of marketeers! 

The saying goes that charity begins at home – take care of those around you. On this topic, this is a double entendre; respect and reflect the values of your people, and mobilise them to act together for the greater good. To get people excited about your mission or the crux of your campaign, they need to relate and respond to the truth within it. 

Start with a strong narrative to show how you’re solving, not selling

To build a campaign, you need the right foundations: the right narrative. For many organisations, this might be the first time you have talked about ESG issues externally, so you won’t have clear messaging to hang your content from. It’s important you spend time building this and really understanding your positioning as a company, because as a ‘new’ topic for you, it will likely draw more interest and a range of responses for you to prepare for. John advised us to simply start with the truth. Consumers are looking for authenticity around the purpose of your brand, products or services, so they can build trust and loyalty. Ask yourself how you are solving something, not selling something, and go back to basics. The purpose of a good business is to solve an issue for people or planet, so when you talk to your audiences you should align your message with your purpose – show your consumers who you are and what you stand for, to build a deeper connection. 

Working with mission-based brand Pip & Nut, Jacqueline echoed the importance of showing consumers your purpose under the surface, and making sure that it runs through all you do. When you consider what you do as a core business, and what you are best positioned to make a difference on (through your heritage, expertise, passion, skillset and priorities), the story begins to write itself. Pip & Nut originally set out to deliver great tasting products while eradicating the use of palm oil, so it made natural sense to them to underpin their operations with great sustainability credentials too – through responsible sourcing, packaging and climate action – to create authenticity across the board. It’s important to lean into this alignment to tell your authentic story – it’s showing the full picture that allows for a message to land truthfully. 

John reminded us of how you can get this wrong with the infamous story of the Fearless Girl statue installed in Wallstreet for International Women’s Day, sponsored by a firm who was then exposed for possible gender disparity in pay. There was an inauthentic lack of truth in that proposition – which is why it is important that ESG shouldn’t be seen as just a communications, marketing or reporting challenge, but a strategic one for the whole organisation – what is your social contract, what do you support externally and what do your products and operations truthfully ‘support’ internally? A moment to self-reflect – you can have the most creative, exciting and well-meaning campaign, but if it isn’t true to your current values and impact as a business, it will put you at risk. 

You can’t lead on everything; where is your intersection, what is your north star? 

So, when you are setting up a campaign, be attuned to risk, and moor all you do in the substantive. Joe explained how on environmental, social and governance issues, public companies are either a supporter or a leader. Vertically, you have your reason for operating, and horizontally you have all the others that define a good business, from sustainability to diversity and inclusion, mental health, working conditions etc. You can’t lead on everything, but there are things you also can’t get wrong. It is the intersection between those horizontal factors and your vertical product in which you will find the space you want to lead, and therefore what you build your story upon.  

Jacqueline used the B Corp framework to help define their ‘leading’ and ‘supporting’, but there are lots of frameworks out there. John agreed that your license to operate has to be intact, and then you have the freedom to find your space and voice to lead. For a good business to have impact in the world, it has to be successful, and this is where your narrative and resulting campaigns can move the needle and increase your ability to offer more. It is the way people consume products that is going to change society so we want the best businesses to put their values at the forefront, so consumers can see and understand all the good that they do. John gave Boots as a great example of this – a brand who led the way in many aspects of ethical beauty, but had a very different public perception than that of say Bodyshop or Lush, purely down to its less values-led narrative.  

Joe put this plainly: in most businesses you have a problem statement you set out to solve, and a mission statement that answers the problem statement. The further you can go with your mission statement, supporting it with concrete goals and measures or streamlining and simplifying to one north star, the more your marketing will get people excited and connected to you and your trajectory.  

Inner alignment for outer impact… 

Debra advised it’s important to think about the right moments in the customer life cycle to show a customer the good that you do, and the importance of building relationships between the sustainability and marketing departments to do this. Marketing want strong stories that connect with the customer, and ESG-based stories have this in spades. If your senior leadership teams are all aligned to your mission, you unlock huge potential for impact, as you are able to make more strategic decisions that tell stories in themselves. Joe gave the example of choosing to challenge a pricey advert and instead fund the product team to buy more sustainable components, because not only does this better fund your trajectory, but ultimately tells a better story when the time is right too. As long as you have evidence, you will have enough credence to avoid purpose washing.  

A challenge arises when the external environment calls you to comment on something you aren’t necessarily expert in – perhaps something you are a supporter on, not a leader, or even something you know you don’t do well. You have to find the right balance between responding to something that matters to your employees and your customers, but not raising your voice too loudly on something you aren’t ready to, and being seen as ‘jumping on a bandwagon’ inauthentically. Make sure you build a solid understanding of the issue and your positioning within it, and where possible are supportive and vocal throughout the year rather than as a reactive one-off. John advised that we no longer have just transactional audiences (customers, employees and investors) but peripheral audiences too: the rest of society, who can make or break a business overnight.

You’ve built your foundations; now what? 

Once you have your narrative and positioning, how do you create compelling content that mobilises measurable change? 

To start with a healthy challenge, Jacqueline advised that Pip & Nut don’t tend to do big above-the-line, singular campaigns, but instead communicate their ESG credentials through always-on comms. They communicate their mission, credentials and partnerships through a variety of micro-touch points such as in and on their packaging, and donation schemes on their website. Multiple touchpoints allow you to meet people where they are and provide both a snappy memorable message and also a place for those interested to delve deeper or act alongside you. 

Joe talked about the brand you get for free as opposed to paid brand marketing, using the softer moments to speak to customers about your values when you aren’t trying to sell to them, such as an order confirmation screen or self-serve content. Your reputation, and frankly your brand, is what people say about you when you are not in the room. There are ways to both enhance or damage this for free, before you apply active brand marketing to change perception. Even a headline change on your website could communicate your mission rather than your product – think about where you can take the small moments and turn them into hero moments. Strategically, Joe advised us, your existing customers are your army of marketeers – if you can get your word-of-mouth growth as high as possible then paid marketing fuels something already rolling. 

A big campaign with a big question: can you set the financials aside? 

But what about the other side – what about the big, bold campaigns? How can you use them to shout about what you stand for and mobilise across sectors and customers? John talked about his experience on campaigns for activist companies, where success isn’t measured on sales but on engagement and mobilisation, and actually how removing money as the primary measure removes many obstacles. When he created the Jubilee Hour, which had one of the biggest results of mass mobilisation of volunteer hours since World War Two, the key was that he could give the brand and platform away into the hands of the people. The compelling message was simply to act, in a free and easy way that tied to the nation’s values, so it was easy to engage with, with no blocker to trust from a commercial agenda. When a brand puts their commercials aside to deliver a message for greater good, they often see soaring levels of engagement – think Iceland’s banned Orangutan animation about palm oil. It wasn’t designed to help Iceland sell food – it was designed to showcase and support a cause they believed in. This in turn is taken up and championed by people who don’t necessarily buy your products, but they believe in what you believe in, and that relationship begins to grow. That is the way to build a great purposeful campaign – root it in your purpose, not your product, and you will build authentic connection with a far wider spread than your customer base. 

While values-based campaigns don’t always have immediate financial impact, they can build long-term brand equity. But if we aren’t measuring money, what are we measuring when we launch a campaign? John advised us to focus on the audience you want to influence – are you engaging hearts and minds to change purchasing behaviour, or social behaviour? Think carefully and specifically about why your campaign is running and what you want to achieve. And, just as you align your core product/service to your purpose and mission, align your distinctive tone of voice to the shape of the campaign. Jacqueline talked about how you can leverage your distinctive brand in the channels and levels of creativity you choose; is your brand cheeky, lending itself to an unexpected bang, or is it more serious and subtle, perfect for a more formal and intimate approach? It does pose a challenge if your brand is playful, as you need to know when to go deeper on the bigger issues and how to do this within your tone of voice, but there are plenty of ways you can use the charm of your brand to inspire action. 

Ultimately, our panellists agreed that once you are clear on what you stand for, you must find the most authentic way to tell your audience, to really build brand equity far beyond the service you provide.

Are you working through similar challenges in your organisation or with your clients? Find out how we can support you to plan for and launch your organisation’s purposeful campaigns, or raise a topic for our next webinar. We’d love to hear from you! 

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