The last few years have seen a sea change in consumer expectations of brands – and savvy brands are catching on fast. Having a sense of purpose which goes beyond a brand’s profitability and share price is increasingly being seen, not as a ‘nice to have’, but as an essential part of your company’s licence to operate. Consumers increasingly expect brands not just to have functional benefits but a social purpose – in other words, to be a force for good in society.
Recent criticisms of the power and dominance of global multi-nationals who appear to operate without due regard to legislation (Facebook) or the need to contribute to the societies from which they benefit (Starbucks, Amazon, Uber) have been seen as the downside of global corporates. Brands have seen the writing on the wall and are acting with enlightened self-interest.
New and challenger brands such as fashion brand TOMS, with their One for One pledge to help a person in need, are way ahead. Founder Blake Mycoskie explains: ‘Today’s consumers, (i.e. you and I) are so distracted, that it takes something special to attract our attention. More than buying stuff, we want to be a part of movements and surround ourselves with like-minded people that share our view of the world.’ Millennials have grown up with an understanding of the importance of contributing positively to communities and society at large. They expect brands to be authentic and make a difference in the world, and can sniff out a cynical purpose play on social media faster than a pig can find a truffle.
While some established companies have been slow to respond and are finding it hard to look beyond existing rigid business practices and cultures, other brands are making big moves. Quoted in The Drum magazine, Leila Fataar, Diageo’s first Head of Culture and Entertainment, wants the drinks producer’s brands to provoke conversation about issues such as equal marriage, and believes cultural marketing is about ‘authenticity’ and ‘almost not advertising’. She says: ‘If we put a big logo over something then it is just advertising, so it has to be more than just a pouring deal. We’ve got these brands that are iconic and there’s a real opportunity to do something that could actually have a real impact. I want to be able to say we were able to change something, or one of our brands was able to help someone. If we can help and assist our fans then why shouldn’t we?’
Research from Brand Z suggests there is evidence that organisations that have a positive impact on society grow faster than those brands that don’t. Brands at Unilever with a social purpose have grown at twice the rate of other brands in its portfolio. Helping customers improve their own lives can also have a positive impact on businesses’ commercial goals. Vitality Insurance, for example, saw a drop in claims after giving customers wearable technology to help them track their physical activity.
Fundamentally, social purpose makes business sense. Helping customers improve their lives can have a positive impact on commercial goals. Making a positive impact on society can generate long-term business growth – it’s a win-win. Research by Cone Communications showed 90% of shoppers are likely to switch to brands that support a good cause. Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact that their actions and purchases have on the wider world.
This is supported by Edelman’s latest trust barometer, which shows that 45% of people say their trust in a business increases if they believe it has contributed to the greater good. The majority of people (80%) believe it is possible for companies to take action both to increase profits and improve the social or economic conditions of the community.
Brands are taking a deep dive into their attributes and values to develop social-purpose strategies. Vaseline looked at their tagline ‘the healing power of Vaseline’ and asked: ‘Where is our healing power most urgently needed?’. Through wide ranging research they learned that Vaseline was an indispensable part of emergency first-aid kits in refugee camps. This insight led to a social purpose strategy around skin care for people living in poverty or emergency conditions. In partnership with the non-profit Direct Relief, The Vaseline Healing Project aims to reach 5 million people by 2020. In tests, the project marketing campaign outperformed other initiatives which enabled more resources to be put in. Brand success equalled commercial success and social benefit.
Sometimes the connection between commercial purpose and social purpose is easy to make. Microsoft’s social purpose – as set out by CEO Satya Nadella – is ‘to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more.’ Microsoft worked with the BBC to give a pocket-sized computer with motion detection, a built-in compass and Bluetooth technology to every year seven pupil in the UK, to encourage digital creativity. The company has also run an apprenticeship programme, helping 25,000 UK businesses fill technical skills gaps and become more efficient using Microsoft technology. By empowering people to use its products, Microsoft knows they can reinforce their reputation with the workforce of the future. In this example, social purpose is tightly connected to business purpose. If, just by doing business, you can deliver positive social outcomes then you have a deep brand purpose.
Genuine brand purpose can also help recruit talent and retain staff, making a good relationship with society not just a nice to have, but a key determinant of competitiveness. A survey from Deloitte found that 73% of employees that work at a purpose-driven company feel engaged. They determine purpose as ‘an important objective that creates a meaningful impact for everyone.’
If a brand’s commitment to doing good matters more than ever to customers, employees, and communities it must be more than just lip service. In previous decades, concepts such as ‘CSR’ and ‘sustainability’ were relegated to a half page in the Annual Report, or as Lord Brown, former BP CEO commented, were ‘a sticking plaster over a company’s issues and an afterthought for the board on a Friday afternoon.’ In a world of social media and instant mass communication, any sort of white wash, greenwash, or doing-good-in-society wash won’t hack it.
Pepsi was condemned and ridiculed for climbing on the purpose bandwagon with adverts that suggested profound long-term racial tensions between communities and the police could be solved with a soft drink; the ad was pulled within 48 hours. Actions like this increase consumer cynicism and mistrust. A brand needs an authentic sense of purpose backed up by changes to the core business. When Dove was attracting fans and plaudits for their initiatives to change stereotypes of beauty, other brands in the Unilever family were found to be still promoting stereotypical views; the negative social media attention provoked changes by Unilever. Inconsistencies between your operations and your social purpose claims will quickly become visible.
Your purpose has to be ingrained within the company, and understood by all employees so that it is reflected in all business practices, decision and initiatives. People are increasingly alert for companies that send out a couple of tweets about feminism while having a massive (and now published) pay gap or exploiting female workers in Asia. The potential for instant exposure on social media means brands must behave in a way that is consistent and authentic.
Here at Verity London our campaigns and content bring people and brands together to drive positive social change. We help you explore your brand purpose and identify how it might drive social impact.
So how can your business make a greater contribution to society?
If you are an old or established brand, look back to founding principles or founders. Companies are often started by visionaries acting at a time of great social need or technological upheaval. Going back to those founding impulses, values and principles can act as inspiration to make a positive impact in society. Fever-Tree’s recent initiative with charity Malaria No More makes sense because the origins and purpose of their tonic water product align perfectly with the charity’s objectives. The same applies to brand values, attributes or tag lines. As with the example of Vaseline above, explore the implications of your vision, values and brand attributes and what they might mean to the world today.
Conduct an audit of your existing social and CSR initiatives. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to throw out existing initiatives and start again; this may in itself cause reputational damage. Assess the positive impact your social initiatives are having already; consider how to deepen them and what would really make a long term difference or solve the problem for good. Use surveys and focus groups to understand what employees, stakeholder’s and community partners think of your existing impact and what is important to them. Discussions with your wider community, stakeholders and customers can provide surprising insights into how to develop your business, and result in new products, initiatives and collaborations as well as contributions to society.
Of course you have to involve your marketing department but also look way beyond it. Any good CMO will see the value of exploring social purpose and they will also see that it has to be genuine and linked to your values and business strategy. But representatives from all departments have to be engaged (and be involved in a social purpose workshop) and contribute to the strategy in order to avoid ‘purpose wash’ or jumping on the latest band wagon.
Engage your leaders. Any purpose review has to have leadership involvement and a strong connection to the overall business strategy in order to gain support both internally and externally.
Think long term and don’t expect instant wins. Be in it for the long haul. Putting your head above the parapet on purpose may mean getting your house in order across a range of good practices. This can only be of benefit to the long term health of your brand or organisation.
Verity London Team
020 8445 8324
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