The most successful brands on the planet — Tesla, Patagonia, Airbnb— have seamlessly weaved positive impact into their business model to attract loyal consumers and employees (not to mention astute investors like the $6 trillion behemoth BlackRock, which recently asked the companies it invests in to show social impact alongside financial returns).
But for the large majority of brands taking their first steps in bringing their purpose to life in meaningful and tangible ways, there's often an inability to go beyond declaring their social stance in some sort of short-term campaign that's more about gaining PR and social media buzz than any measurable long-term positive cultural impact.
Part of the difficulty lies in the ADD nature of modern-day marketing: The average tenure of a chief marketing officer is 19 months, and businesses focused on hitting quarterly profit goals struggle with making the multiyear commitments needed to effect significant social impact.
Another factor: the continued dominance of the advertising-and-media model as the primary channel for marketing. Despite the accelerating disintegration of this model caused by ad-free streaming, ad blocking, ad fraud and other fundamental issues, the old model still manages to gain the lion's share of dollars because of the systemic inertia caused by decades of reliance on this increasingly antiquated approach.
Ironically, there are millions of creative minds at work in agencies around the world wasting their energy on the next four-second pre-roll ad.
The solution: Don't advertise; fix things. Solving problems for brands gives people a real reason to be advocates and create the real driver of purchase decisions, which is genuine word of mouth.
What if creatives found new ways to partner with nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, start-ups, governments and cities to find ways to improve our lives? Focus on making an impression, not buying one. What if all that energy could be redirected into marketing experiences at the intersection of useful and delightful?
These could be digital experiences that facilitate real-world interactions. Airbnb's Open Homes initiative allows users to donate free housing to refugees or victims of natural disaster, or State Farm's Neighborhood of Good, which connects people with volunteering opportunities. Or they could be physical experiences, like the anti-sexual harassment Safe Houses for Women from New Delhi-based Company of Design, or the Edible Six Pack Rings from We Believers.
These experiences could be innovative partnerships between brands, nonprofits and culture creators: In recent weeks, we have seen Apple partner with the Malala Fund to educate 100,000 girls, Chance the Rapper and Google team up to help Chicago Public Schools, and Toyota launching a $4 million challenge to help develop mobility solutions for people with lower-limb paralysis.
We need more purpose-driven initiatives like these that can help create triple-bottom-line marketing for brands that helps build brand advocacy and loyalty, drive employee engagement and create positive social impact.
As Russ Stoddard, founder of the agency Oliver Russell, says, "The goal of a purpose-driven company isn't to tell a story, but to become the story."
This could also solve the ad industry's existential crisis: the cynicism and apathy that accompanies the feeling that most of the work is trivial, disrupting the lives of consumers who don't want to see it in the first place. By treating people as citizens with a wide range of passions and interests, we'll see that there are countless of problems that brands can solve for them, from the everyday to the epic.
If we treat the world itself as the canvas, we'll see the massive opportunities to enhance lives through our work. It's about people, not pixels.
And in the process, we'll be able to create a world where marketing as a discipline can optimize life in ways that are truly transformational, not just transactional.
How will you start today?
Afdhel Aziz is the co-author of "Good Is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn"