The New Rules for Purpose-Driven Brands

How Marketers Can Survive the Cause-Marketing Bubble

By Published on .

Jeremy Heimans
Jeremy Heimans
Alnoor Ladha
Alnoor Ladha
The brand world is in the middle of a cause-marketing bubble. There is hardly a major global brand or corporation today without cause-based consumer messaging. "Green" is now such an over-used catchall that even marketing offenders are laying claim to it. Consumers are cheerfully encouraged to unplug their appliances by the same corporations that are investing millions in campaigns to stop action on climate change. Peripheral investments in social responsibility are presented to consumers as major corporate realignments.

In this sea of generic and often-disingenuous cause messaging, those brands that are serious about social change are now struggling to stand out. What was even five years ago a source of competitive advantage and differentiation for forward-thinking brands is now just the status-quo. The risk this creates is twofold: It will discourage corporations from pursuing truly impactful social strategies and it will leave consumers feeling jaded and desensitized—and less primed for outreach from well-intentioned brands.

How can truly purpose-driven brands stand out again and mobilize their consumers around the same goals?

There are two paths, depending on whether social benefit is built into your brand or is tangential to it. If purpose is intrinsic to your brand, you have a unique opportunity to mobilize consumers using nontraditional movement techniques and reap rewards rarely available to traditional brands. If you make electric cars, or wind turbines or organic food—or if you're a credit union and not Bank of America—then you have to look no further than the economic engine of your brand for a compelling social mobilization strategy. Consumers are already primed to engage with these brands as they would a social movement. Owning a Prius was, for a time, an expression of political identity, a way to signal a deeply held belief and a profoundly social act. The quiet satisfaction of being environmentally responsible isn't enough for most of us—we want the world to know we're doing it, and we want our actions to feel like they're part of a much bigger, coordinated movement. Brands that understand this—and can create a consumer experience that feels less transactional and more pro-social—will build deep loyalty.

If a cause or social benefit is not intrinsic to the economic engine of your brand, a different set of choices opens up. Most established brands now have some kind of publicly articulated social mission, but they often struggle to find an authentic and genuinely impactful way to mobilize their consumers around it, especially when that mission is ancillary to the product or service itself.

Here are some rules for brands that want to meaningfully engage consumers around a purpose or genuine social mission:

1. Start with internal transformation.
Brands that take internal transformation seriously are better-placed—and less vulnerable—when they reach out directly to consumers. U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer is making sustainability central to its long-term business strategy, so that everything from the company's supply chain to the actual inventory it stocks is based on reducing emissions. Through its Plan A initiative, it asked consumers to join it in supporting a comprehensive international agreement to limit climate change late last year. This is a far cry from generic green messaging and gives the retailer real credibility as it asks consumers to make behavior changes and attempts to shift demand toward sustainable products and services.

2. If you're not there yet, avoid declaring victory.
If you're a long way from market leadership but are serious about long-term change, avoid cause-based messaging that tries to obscure this. If you're a top global fast-food brand, trumpeting nutritional benefits or sustainability in consumer marketing is premature and misleading. Brands in this category should focus on internal transformation while communicating their positive social contributions in other issue areas.

3. Champion a movement, not a campaign.
Many brands still see cause marketing initiatives through the prism of traditional marketing campaigns—short-term "pulses" broadcast to consumers or tacked on at the end of product advertising. A successful social strategy requires movement thinking—that is, a long-term commitment to an issue or cause that endures beyond this year's big push. A brand such as Nokia, for example, has a significant opportunity to become the long-term champion of fighting global poverty through mobile technology. To do this, it will need to involve its consumers meaningfully in both the developed and developing worlds.

4. The stakes must be high.
To really stand out, something must hang in the balance. The mobilization of your consumer base must have the potential to sway the outcome of an issue that is crucial in the public domain. When Dove launched its "Campaign for Real Beauty," it took a risk by championing an issue that wasn't bland or noncontroversial. Dove's access to hundreds of millions of women has given it the ability to educate and influence a huge constituency and provide a platform for cultural change.

5. Most important, ask your consumers to take action.
The brand cannot be a mere commentator on an issue, it must provide the relevant platform (online and off), the tools for action and allow interested parties to seamlessly self-organize around the issue itself. With Livestrong, we created a dedication book that allowed members to create a page in honor of someone in their lives touched by cancer and allowed their social networks to take the simple act of signing the dedication page as an entry point for further engagement. This created a "distributed action" that allowed those who created pages to recruit their friends and family into supporting a movement to fight cancer.

Successful social initiatives that create real social impact will need a combination of 20th century top-down persuasion—brands that tell the world their point of view through marketing and communications—with the tools of 21st century engagement: movements that provide the tools for advocacy, social involvement, distributed evangelism and self-organization. We hope these rules are a starting point for a greater dialogue about the role of brands in ushering in a new era of social change.

Jeremy Heimans is CEO-co-founder and Alnoor Ladha is the director of strategy at Purpose, a home for building movements for progressive causes and purpose-driven brands.
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