We said this more than a year ago, after a major study by the Brunswick Group demonstrated that most CEOs felt their brand needed to take a stand on social issues, while less than a third of consumers wanted to see politics in marketing—roughly the opposite of what every agency was telling its clients at that time. Just because some major brands got away with it, and in a few cases hit all the right notes, does not mean my toothpaste has any credibility in telling me which cause to support or when to feel outraged or guilty. It’s stressful enough being told I have to floss every day.
Those of you who make a fortune preaching purpose-before-product to credulous clients may consider the preceding paragraph to be heresy. You must admit, however, that lasting purpose comes from a brand’s DNA—its core business extrapolated to its most human outcome. Purpose is not a watered-down reflection of whatever happens to be trending on social media.
The most iconic brands in history survived the test of time by riding cultural waves that carried consumers to both ends of the political spectrum. These brands grew by bringing people together around shared values and passions, not by forcing them to choose a side. Coca-Cola on the mountain, the unabashed celebration of music that launched Apple’s iPod, the athletic drive to reject the “impossible” by Adidas. You can be young or old, right or left, and those sentiments are universally appealing because they are universal truths, not political statements or cultural trends. And most importantly, the platform flows from the product—the heart of the business.
This brings clarity to clients’ decision-making when it comes to tackling bigger issues. If you’re a beverage brand or a dishwasher detergent, consider doing nice things to help us save water, or get water to faraway people who don’t have enough. If you’re a bank or credit card, look into financial literacy, supporting small business or providing seed capital for underserved communities. In other words, make it clear what you’re selling, and then—and only then—push your business model into the next stage by doing the right thing by your customers and giving back to a broader community. That’s what real purpose is all about, and that’s what drives long-term advocacy versus short-term attention.
Let’s face it, the seesaw behavior of CEOs on social issues over the past couple of years is not the result of careful business planning but rather a symptom of abject terror at the thought of alienating their youngest employees. The youngest cohorts in the workforce have more demands than Veruca Salt, which isn’t terribly surprising, but the difference this time around is that their managers—who have far more experience, more accountability and infinitely more to lose—aren’t managing them at all. They are running scared.
But wait, if you’re a CEO or CMO, isn’t the word chief in your title? And if so, why don’t you act like it? Confidence and authenticity are the best assets a brand can possess, and there’s nothing authentic about a brand pandering, posturing or pulling people apart.
Great brands bring people together, and optimism always wins.
At their best, brands show people of divergent backgrounds how much they have in common simply by becoming something they all wear, eat, drive, etc. A badge we wear, a club we join, a symbol of common ground. At a time when our moral outrage is routinely stoked by vote-hungry politicians and click-hungry media, maybe marketing could become a little more meaningful by simply reminding us that we’re more like-minded than our elected officials want us to be.
Deep inside every brand is a desire to make something better. That’s why the company was founded, and it’s your job as a marketer to figure out what that means today. Maybe that’s simply a better toothpaste, which leads to more smiles in the world.
Not a bad start, even if you don’t floss.