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“Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard. Putting in long hours for a cause is easy.” (Elon Musk) 

The number of campaigns dedicated to a social or societal concern is growing. Lifestyle brands are no longer the only ones that want to communicate in a meaningful way. Everything is represented in the entire low-interest sector, from financial service providers to household cleaners. Brands that are up-to-date look for a campaign topic, which acts on a social cause and uses itself as mark for a better world, helping us all to live a more social, fairer, beautiful and sustainable life. But how sustainable and rewarding is this for the brands themselves? And what distinguishes convincing purpose driven brands from free-riding trendsetters?

A logical step to create interest.

Today we are globally dealing with increasingly saturated markets and interchangeable products. The search for uniqueness and desirability is thus constantly becoming more difficult. At the same time, brands are being viewed more critically. 10 years ago, BBDO stated in its Brand Parity Study that people consider around 2/3 of all brands to be interchangeable. And there is no upward trend in sight – around a third of all brands could disappear unnoticed without anyone caring. At the same time 75% of humans expect today that brands make a larger contribution to our quality of life.

Procter & Gamble and Unilever, two of the largest manufacturers of consumer goods have been dedicating themselves to “purpose driven marketing” for around 10 years already. But many companies seem to skip this cultural shift so far, as the consulting firm GlobeOne shows in a 2018 study: a silent revolution in marketing – but many companies still have not noticed anything about it. Only 18 percent of the leading companies in Germany have identified a corporate purpose for the general public in their brand claim.

Strong brands show courage and take a stand.

With a strong brand purpose, a brand takes a position instead of just positioning itself. If the brand stands for something – then also against something else. Good communication examples show this impressively. Strong positions can polarize. But above all, they can also be used internally as a compass in corporate and organisational development. This is probably one of the reasons why Edelmann calls their current brand report “Brands take a stand”, and Interbrand also mentions a recipe for success for strong, valuable brands in the current Best Global Brands Report: “They are activating brave”.

Positive communication examples show that it is often a matter of normalizing banal things communicatively – instead of declaring one’s own products a category revolution.
Thus Bodyform/ Libresse mit #bloodnormal with #bloodnormal ensures that the female period is freed from taboos. Among other things, by no longer showing a “blue replacement fluid” in communication. Normality becomes a revolution – and the brand paves the way for breaking taboos and stereotypes.

Enough examples for misunderstood meaning

They are primarily the result of a lack of credibility and a trivialisation of meaning. As untrustworthy actionistic wallpaper instead of a mirror of a conviction anchored in the company.

In 2017 Pepsi and Kendall Jenner focused on the topic of justice in a street fight – but how credible is that in the context of a caffeine drink? The spot was withdrawn after extensive protests. In the same year McDonalds and their “Filet o Fish” told the story of a son and his dead father – but how far can an emotional benefit be stretched if neither product nor brand supports it? Deutsche Bank, as a major bank, also wants to create a connection to people with its Hashtag #positivecontribution – which it then clearly counteracts on other channels with very different statements and actions. The social shitstorm doesn’t stay away for long. “Human closeness” and support of the little ones becomes untrustworthy when the company itself represents completely different values in its real business behaviour. Just three examples that show how quickly social advertising commitment backfires.

Some campaign topics have long since worn out.

Best example: “Female Empowerment” – there are now so many brands that are committed to this topic. It’s hard to tell which brand is committed to a particular cause. Instead of focusing on a generally popular topic, it is important to remain close and credible to one’s own brand and the associated category, product and brand values. Otherwise, any attempt to jump on a moving train quickly ends up in arbitrariness. Because not every socially relevant topic has to be the right one for your own brand.

At best, there’s more to it than just a campaign.

Anyone who deals with the subject will always come across brands that have defined a strong sense of purpose and live it in all their doing. These include American brands REI, Patagonia, Chobani Greek Yoghurt, Ben & Jerry’s or TOMs Shoes, but also European brands such as ChariTea, Share or Viva con Agua. What they have in common is their clear, socially relevant founding philosophy. A philosophy that finds expression in all of the company’s activities, far beyond communication.

The US-American outdoor brand Patagonia makes it clear again and again how serious it is for them. For example, the new tax laws initiated by Trump, and thus tax savings of around $10 million, are being passed on to environmental NGOs. The basis for this is formulated in the Mission Statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

It’s always a commitment to what people care about.

Brands that serve a greater purpose have not only defined a strong attitude, but often also clear performance indicators that are committed to social welfare. But this is not the right or possible way for everyone. Even less socially conscious brands can have a strong purpose.

In GROW, Jim Stengel defines five categories in which brands create meaning – by committing to values such as “joy, connection, exploration, pride, impact”. Here the concept of purpose is defined more broadly than with a focus on the company’s social responsibility. Purpose thus builds on what people are looking for in life, including in the consumer context. So can brands like IKEA, Facebook or Coca-Cola pursue a deep brand purpose and credibly represent it? That probably depends on what activities they create on its basis rather than how they describe it. The top ten of the Havas meaningful brands 2019 study, which create meaning from a consumer’s point of view, are hardly surprising: Google, Paypal, Mercedes-Benz, Whatsapp, Youtube, J&J, Gillette, BMW, Microsoft or Danone.

Participation as driver of successful Purpose Brands. 

Brands with a strong purpose offer a theme that people want to join and participate in. That the brand can activate not only through good stories, but on a broad level: from the product to initiatives that are more than a nice story. Because these brands do not just call on people to share and participate. They do this under the banner of a connectable mission. Deutsche Telekom has created a good example with “Sea Hero Quest”: the app, which helps dementia research, has not only achieved over 4 million downloads – it has also collected research data worth more than 14,000 research years. And that credibly conveys what the brand stands for: Life is for Sharing.

Deeply rooted in the company, purpose becomes a living mission statement. 

The power of a corporate and brand purpose is not only demonstrated through advertising. But also as an internal mission statement – and thus as a force in employer branding. Recent studies show that we prefer to work for companies whose values and visions we stand behind ourselves, as surveys by Deloitte and Gallup show. And not only millennials seek more than salary – these factors have long been important for older employees – we all prefer employers who have a clear vision and act in a meaningful way.

Figures have long shown that brands with meaning do not only attract more attention or make spontaneous purchasing decisions in the short term. Purpose is above all also an effective economic lever and plays an important role in the purchase decision – globally 64% of buyers are believe driven buyers, in Germany the number has jumped from 37 to 54% within only 12 months.

In a 10-year study by Millward Brown and P&G, brands that are dedicated to improving people’s lives also beat their category competitors in terms of length and grow three times as fast as their competitors. Interbrand also confirms these figures – Purpose creates stable long-term growth: “The brands generating the most stable growth over the past 10 years are those with the highest overall scores on Relevance and Responsiveness”.

So it is not surprising that even Larry Fink, head of the investment company BlackRock, in his “Letter to CEOs” calls for long-term thinking and a corporate purpose: “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. …Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.”

Brands with a strong purpose develop their full power if culture, structure and corporate strategy are defined through it. If it remains at the boundaries of actionistic advertising campaigns or constantly keeps changing to new brand missions, the potential cannot unfold. Seriously meant and credible as a really separate theme of the brand, activated in the long run internally and externally, brand purpose at best becomes part of the organisational DNA, a true intelligent qualification and a lucrative investment.

The article originally appeared as a column in absatzwirtschaft in June 2019.


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