Does every business need a social purpose?

Victoria Howarth

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What has soap got to do with self-confidence? Or fizzy drinks got to do with the black rights movement? Almost every big brand today has begun campaigning to become associated with something beyond what they ‘do’. Whether it’s Skittles associating itself with Pride, or Starbucks with the refugee crisis, every big brand worth their salt now seems to have a social purpose. But why?

Woking up

Good marketing should always reflect the target audience, but traditionally businesses have tended to focus on how their product fulfils their customers’ needs or desires. Our product is thirst-quenching, or it will help you do something faster, or it’ll save you money.

Until now, that approach has been aligned with the values of our society. You want something? You have it! Cheaper, faster and shinier than ever before! As L’Oreal’s slogan goes, you’re worth it.

But something has been happening lately. Perhaps it was the sight of Australia literally on fire, or the cumulative outrage of another death by police brutality, or the global pandemic giving us a very real glimpse of death. Or all of them altogether. But it’s as if we collectively all had a long look at ourselves.

Climate destruction, racism, sexism and homophobia have been happening for a very long time, but in just the last couple of years, it’s like we all experienced a kind of moral awakening and decided that we really need to do something about it.

And something is happening with businesses too. Instead of competing on price, or features, or the quality of customer experience, brands are increasingly adopting another paradigm. Instead of saying to customers: we’ve got what you want, they’re saying, we’re aligned with your values. We are, ‘a bit of you’.

Have businesses simply undergone the same moral awakening? Are we seeing a new era of responsible businesses? Or is this simply a clumsy attempt to hitch onto the next ‘big thing’? Even worse, is it a way for big corporates who often exacerbate these issues, to exploit opportunities to make even more money.

What’s difficult about this question is that it’s often your customers who make a conclusion on your behalf, which is why it’s so important to get it right.

Nailing it vs getting nailed

In 2010, Dove launched its Be Real body confidence campaign. Today, it’s still lauded as one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever. There are a few things it did really well. Firstly, it was first. Dove was one of the leading brands to try this kind of social purpose campaign. But not everybody can win that race.

The second thing they did really well – in combination – is tuning in to something that their target audience felt very strongly about: that they were constantly being berated by society about how they look and sold products to make them meet draconian modern ideals.

The third and fourth thing were the most important though. Dove had a completely relevant stake in the market, because they sold ‘beauty’ and body products, so they could easily be seen as part of the problem. But also, their message ostensibly went in the face of the commercial agenda: We’re not going to neg you to get you to buy stuff, Dove said. And everywhere, women said, aww that’s nice, how refreshing.

Fast forward to 2017 and Pepsi launching their advert about Black Lives Matter, judged as one of the most unsuccessful social purpose campaigns ever. It didn’t just flop, it went down in flames, breathed by millions of infuriated consumers.

That advert looked like the work of the most ham-fisted, insincere marketing initiative. Surely – it seemed like Pepsi were saying – 1 Major Gen Z Insta Influencer (insert any) + This Popular Social Cause (insert any) + Our Product Placement = Instant Success?

Is it worth it?

Marketing Week recently posted an article from Byron Sharp, a marketing professor, suggesting that social purpose is a kind of by-product of a confidence crisis in marketers. That we feel like we have to elevate our work above selling product, to give ourselves a sense of pride in our work. His conclusion seems to be: We should just stick to what we do best – sell stuff and take pride in doing that well; stop wading into all this social purpose stuff.

But social purpose can be successful, it’s just probably not for everybody. Nor should it be, because not every brand can truly say that a social purpose comes naturally to their brand. And that’s really the bottom line: as Kantar says in its recent media trends report, “the raison d’être of brands like Patagonia, Veja and The Beauty Counter is intrinsic, whereas campaigns from other companies might be perceived as opportunistic or insincere.”

The challenge that many brands face, is that they become so big that they feel obliged to have a brand position on major global trends. In support of the Black Lives Matter, for example, Netflix tweeted: “to be silent is to be complicit”, summing up both the societal sentiment and the position that many of the world’s biggest companies are in.

However, most companies are not considered so big or so influential on our daily lives and culture, that their stance on all societal trends are relevant and necessary. For most brands, only certain domains will be of relevance.

While there is no winning formula, here are some considerations for every brand to consider:

  • Check yourself – Good intentions from a marketing team alone are not enough to ensure success; a social cause must be embodied by your whole organisation and seem natural to an outside audience. Before you consider a social purpose campaign, ask the question – what are our credentials for having a voice on this topic?
  • Be consistent – Much like a puppy isn’t just for Christmas, a social purpose isn’t just for Pride week. Nothing screams insincere like ringing up a campaigner once a year to see if you can grasp a share in their cultural capital; or whacking on the LGBT flag on your logo and nothing else. If you support a cause, go all in and make it your concern 365 days a year.
  • Be prepared for stick – Consumers don’t like brands wading into the things they care about, particularly when they don’t think you deserve to be there. Be prepared to be criticised and take a genuine interest in whether that criticism is merited. Be prepared to eat humble pie if you were wrong.