What separates today's most successful brands from the merely average ones? More and more consumers expect brands to have not just functional benefits but a meaningful social purpose. Consequently, companies are taking social stands in very noticeable ways—Airbnb used a Super Bowl ad to seal its commitment to diversity publically. Brands increasingly use social purpose to advise marketing, inform product innovation, and direct investments to social programs.
Brands with Purpose Are More Attractive to Consumers
If you’ve read Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” or heard his popular TED Talk, you probably recall one of the most famous quotes: “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” People don’t connect to a company’s products or services. They buy into the reasons why these companies exist—the idea that a company exists for something larger than themselves.
A strong brand purpose means having a clear-cut brand perspective that influences what your company does and doesn’t do. Brand strategy consultants, myself included, agree it’s what drives your organization forward. Purposeful brands use their unique position and capabilities to deliver on something that matters to individuals, society or the world. Social purpose brands, such as Patagonia, have a meaningful social purpose engrained in their brand image.
Thanks to a decade of “Real Beauty” campaigns promoting the diversity and beauty of women, Dove successfully associated itself with the goal of positive body image. But after introducing a “limited edition” of body wash bottles meant to represent the various shapes and sizes of women (curvy, slender, and pear-shaped varieties), Dove faced serious backlash. The bottles were criticized for exploiting the very female insecurities that they claim to destroy.
Despite negative reactions to the bottles, most people still love the Dove brand—a survey of 2,209 American adults by Morning Consult, just after Dove launched the ad campaign, found that "82% of people still have a favorable view of Dove." In fact, Unilever’s “Sustainable Living” brands, which includes Dove and Ben & Jerry’s, delivered more than 60% of the company's growth in 2016.
Identify Your Social Purpose
For a social purpose to be credible, brands must first think about how their values and skill sets can contribute to society—carefully examining their internal environment to determine if it is a good fit for the organization and ensuring senior leaders are on board and the idea is economically sustainable. For example, Dove has been sold as a “beauty bar,” not a soap, since 1957. Therefore, it makes sense for Dove to focus on social needs tied to perceptions of beauty.
Brands should also evaluate their customer base and product markets to determine whether the “social need” would assist in strengthening brand image and attributes. To assess the associations consumers may have, considerations include:
- Will target consumers perceive the social need as personally relevant?
- Will consumers be able to associate the brand with the social purpose easily?
- Will the strategy generate positive (and not negative) brand associations?
It’s important to think through how consumers will view the social purpose. Will they see the benefits as an asset? A liability? Or irrelevant to their purchase decision? Brand managers need to understand the full range of associations that different consumer segments may bring to a brand’s social claim.
Understandably companies are profit-driven, but stakeholders may question a brand’s motives if the initiative appears to be driven primarily by commercial interests. If the initiative offers no apparent social benefit, stakeholders may feel manipulated and cynical. Therefore, it’s vital to select a social purpose for which the brand can make a material contribution. Consider the following questions:
- Can the brand have a discernable impact on the social need?
- Are key stakeholders of the issue likely to support the brand actions?
- Can the brand avoid inconsistent messaging and a perception of opportunism?
Companies typically have good intentions when trying to tie their brands with a social need, but choosing the right one has long-term implications. Competing on social purpose requires that brands create value for all stakeholders—customers, employees, shareholders, and society at large—combining strategic acts of generosity with the diligent pursuit of brand goals.