The idea of a social purpose brand (aka purpose-driven brand) has been around for a number of years, but has only recently become more prevalent in shaping how businesses are conceived, branded and evaluated.

So what does it mean to be a brand with a social purpose? And can you shape your organization into a social purpose brand, even if it wasn’t initially established that way? In this blog, I explore what it really means to be a social purpose brand, the different forms it can take, and how social purpose differs from corporate social responsibility (CSR).

What Defines a Social Purpose Business?

Coro Strandberg, a noted sustainability expert, says a social purpose business has three aspects: 1) the company’s reason for being (is it clear, consistent and enduring?), 2) the social ambition of the company (is it present?) and 3) the profit motive of the organization (is the financial agenda directly linked to their social agenda?).

In addition, Strandberg notes that a social purpose brand is, “A company whose enduring reason for being is to create a better world. It is an engine for good, creating social benefits by the very act of conducting business.” In short, a brand with social purpose ensures that its social agenda is a priority, and uses it to drive how business is done internally and externally.

Types of Social Purpose Businesses

There are two kinds of purpose-driven brands:

  1. Those that have social purpose integrated within the brand from the very beginning
  2. Those that integrate a social purpose model at a later date

As highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, companies like Tom’s and Patagonia built  social purpose into their brands from the beginning. In fact, social purpose is so embedded in their DNA, that it’s difficult to see how they would survive if that was no longer the case.

On the other hand, companies like Dove, P&G and Heineken have adopted social purpose within their organizations due to growing consumer insistence for brand social responsibility.

Social Purpose and CSR Are Not the Same Thing

There’s a difference between a brand’s social purpose and its CSR program. As outlined in this Forbes article, CSR focuses on how a company delivers economic, social and environmental benefits to its stakeholders. On the other hand, social purpose, is, as Forbes notes, what your organization stands for. “What you stand for must include CSR,” says Forbes, “but an organization does not solely stand for improving sustainable development.

As we’ve outlined, a brand with a social purpose works to prioritize purpose over profit, and acts accordingly in every aspect of the business — both internally (e.g., organizational policies, how employees are treated) and externally (e.g., marketing and communications initiatives and campaigns). To learn more, check out some of our other posts in which we talk about how to build a purpose driven brand, pitfalls to avoid while doing so, and some of my favourite social purpose brands.

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