Creating a social purpose brand is a serious pursuit that requires a company to dig deep into its soul. Unfortunately, the marketing landscape is littered with various social purpose initiatives that were too shallow and never lived up to their promise or expectation.
So, it’s important to get it right.
Consumers and employees often see through insincere or gimmicky efforts – either ignoring them or ridiculing them. Remember that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad in early 2018? Pepsi used the ad to promote racial harmony, but it rang hollow. The company had no previous public commitment to the cause, and appeared to be capitalizing on a hot-button topic.
According to Anna Koklanakis, senior global brand manager at Knorr, a Unilever company, “The promise of acting with purpose stretches far beyond the marketing department – it’s an empowering reason for every function in a team to think about how they can make a positive impact.”
Brands are being held to a higher standard by consumers, as demonstrated in the Pepsi example. To be meaningful, a social purpose brand requires a well thought-out exercise, with buy-in from all key stakeholders.
So What’s the Secret to Creating a Social Purpose Brand?
To develop a relevant and sincere social purpose strategy, businesses must first identify which social and environmental concerns the brand can address within its overall purpose. According to the Harvard Business Review (based on research conducted at the Ray C. Anderson Centre for Sustainable Business), brands should consider social purpose ideas in three domains:
1. Brand heritage
Tap into the most salient benefits the brand offers customers. For instance, Dove promotes itself as a beauty bar, not a soap; therefore, it focuses on social needs tied to perceptions of beauty.
2. Customer tensions
Address the cultural tensions that affect your customers and are related to your brand’s heritage. As an example, Budweiser’s recent Super Bowl ad celebrates the immigrant story of one of its founders.
3. Product externalities
Consider the indirect costs borne or benefits gained by a third party as a result of your products’ manufacture or use. For instance, Panera Bread positions its offerings as “clean food” (free of artificial ingredients), in direct response to consumer needs.
How to Establish your Brand’s Social Purpose Strategy
Here are some key steps for developing your social purpose strategy:
1. Create your list
Start by considering the initial benefits your brand offers customers, the specific tensions your customers face on a daily basis, and the indirect effects of your product on the general public. Then, create a shortlist of social purpose initiatives that has elements of all three factors.
2. Narrow your options
Narrow your initial list to three or four options, and brainstorm strategies for each one. Evaluate these strategies based on their opportunity to generate business, position your brand within the marketplace, and increase the likelihood of stakeholder acceptance, while minimizing your company’s exposure to risk.
3. Specify your brand’s social purpose value offering
Once you’ve established your social purpose, prepare a brand strategy that determines how your brand will create value for that specific need. Brands can create value in one of four ways:
- Generate resources – This commonly involves a donation of financial or physical resources (such as Tom’s One for One campaign, in which they donate a product for every item sold).
- Provide choices – This gives consumers a better option than what is currently available. For example, Brita filters allow consumers to stop using bottled water.
- Influence mindsets – Brands can use their influence to help shift perspectives on key issues. Dove does this by examining what “real beauty” looks like.
- Improve conditions – Brands can take steps to improve conditions around a certain social need. Coca-Cola does this with their Ekocentre Initiative, providing centres in Africa with clean water, Internet access and solar power.
Take the Time for a Social Purpose Strategy Now
Creating a social purpose strategy takes discipline, time and a clear vision. The companies that have found the most success in this have either:
- Built a clear social purpose into their brand from day one (e.g., Patagonia, Toms, Whole Foods, Vancity), or
- Committed to a strong social purpose that relates directly to their brand and stakeholders, and stayed the course over the years (e.g., Dove, Always, Starbucks)
However you approach it, as long as your social purpose is relevant, authentic and considered, it will provide enduring value to your organization and its stakeholders.