Social purpose: The new brand imperative

We are seeing a new wave of culturally resonant brands that have a true impact on society while also being commercially beneficial.

L-R: Rosa Bransky, Gail Steeden, Jessica Enoch
L-R: Rosa Bransky, Gail Steeden, Jessica Enoch

Brand purpose is most effective and resonant when connected to the culture in which it exists; when it has a clear ‘cultural purpose’—a perspective recently laid out on these very pages by our colleague Alfie. What exactly we mean by this culture will differ across the markets and categories we’re thinking about. But employing the uncontroversial definition of culture as “the totality of the practices, institutions and beliefs of a society” demands that we also to take into account the larger prevailing cultural currents that transcend particular industries or demographics.

And one of these currents has long been brewing and now, it seems, has officially made it to the ‘global mainstream’. It is no longer niche or hippy to express your concerns about the environment or the society we live in, and consumer brands that show they care too are no longer just the domain of sandal-wearing do-gooders. Even Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher took to the stage at the Consumer Electronics Show recently to implore consumer brands to take action:

Don’t be afraid to put your company to task and take on major problems in this world, because people do rally behind those things.

And it looks like he is right. We hear this directly from consumers, both in the qualitative research we do every day, but also in larger studies. For example a 2013 Nielsen survey reported that in India, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, more than two-thirds of people would pay extra for “goods and services from companies that give back”, and this has risen hugely. Edelman’s Good Purpose survey found that when quality and price are the same, social purpose is the most important factor for over half the respondents, and this has grown by an astonishing 100 per cent in Japan and 79 per cent in China between 2010 and 2012. 

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

We also see it in employer satisfaction research, repeatedly showing how millennials are actively looking for work they believe in and prioritise shared values with their employer to a greater extent than any generation before them.

This is perhaps unsurprising in a world where our social sphere is ever increasing, thanks to the internet, bringing a greater visibility to issues which might once have been someone else’s society’s problem. At the same time there is an increase in perceived consumer power and a decrease in trust in government. As such, corporations and consumer brands are increasingly being cited alongside major NGOs and charities as bringing solutions to a range of social issues. They have a reach and supply chains that most charities would envy and a sense of business pragmatism that can often drive a new way of looking at the issue.

So we are seeing a new wave of culturally resonant brands that really do have an impact on society. Don’t get this wrong: They are not charities at all, and their social activity is by no means taken on to the exclusion of good business and bottom lines, but as a dual ‘win win’ proposition. To have a purpose which is simultaneously commercially beneficial and drives toward an improvement in society. A ‘social purpose’ as well as a brand purpose.

At this stage it is worth being clear that having a social purpose is very different to having a CSR policy. This is not a new name for an old notion. Neither is it about green marketing. This is about actively making a positive difference to society, rather than reducing the negative impact you might otherwise make. The consumers we speak to don’t want to choose between the least bad options; they want someone who is stepping forward for active good.

There are some wonderful examples of this where the product benefits are in synergy with a social benefit, and baked into the history of the brand from the start. For example William Lever created Lifebuoy soap in 1894 to combat cholera in Victorian England. The product is now being marketed to save lives from diarrhoea in developing countries. The brand purpose and the social purpose are perfectly intertwined.

Of course not all brands have such synergies or product benefits. Many have had to find new angles or ways of looking at what they currently do to see how they might be able to help solve some of the world’s most urgent problems.  But now we are hearing case studies from Heineken to Patagonia, across Unilever’s brands and beyond, of companies that are taking the lead in driving forward the agenda of ‘doing well by doing good’.

Typical repositioning briefs are more and more often bringing a question of social purpose as well as brand purpose into the mix. These companies are looking at how to cut through the noise in commoditised categories by making a positive impact on the world, thereby gaining the support of consumers and employees. What are the tensions in society and culture the brand can seek to help resolve, and what positive benefits could they bring whether it be through supply chain and the needs of those who they work with, product benefits or communications.

We believe most brands will be looking to define their ‘social purpose’ space by the end of the decade, so expect to see some exciting innovation examples coming soon to a brand near you.

Rosa Bransky, Jessica Enoch and Gail Steeden form the social purpose team at Flamingo


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