Ideals can no longer be manufactured. So what does that mean for brands and advertisers?

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Unilever claims to be doing a lot in the CSR space and isn’t shy about promoting its efforts.

In the last few years we’ve seen plenty of evidence that brands, large and small, are at least experimenting with social initiatives. Doing rather than saying. Striving for purpose along with profit. OK, the emphasis may be on the profit part, but at least we’re seeing some positive momentum.

Mega brands have given us Pepsi Refresh and Small Business Saturday. Smaller players have launched programs like Common Threads (Patagonia) and Tom’s recent Marketplace. Why even the big bad Bank of America is getting in on the action with its SuperBowl AIDS Fundraiser featuring Bono.

Research from the likes of Edelman and TBWA confirms that consumers across the globe are more likely to support and recommend brands with a social purpose. Nearly all consumers — 87 percent — think that business should place equal weight on both social and business issues. But only a small percentage — 28 percent — believe that business is doing its share. Clearly there’s plenty of room to do more.

In a presentation (below) to one of my classes at Boston University last week, Kelsey Hodgkin, one of the smartest strategists I’ve ever worked with, framed the current advertising landscape in light of both this emerging trend and the opportunity. Here’s what we learned and discussed.

In the past, as McCann Erickson’s century-old tagline suggested, great advertising gave us the truth well told. At its most powerful, advertising became a cultural force by taking a brand’s character, then expressing it as an ideal in a way that shaped the desires of society.

Note, of course that there’s a lot of liberty one can take with the truth. For example, Marlboro made us all smokers by taking its truth (smoking is a manly habit) and laddering it up to the most basic American ideal (the independent, rugged American male portrayed as a cowboy). Ralph Lauren did something similar, albeit less harmful, with a manufactured truth that got us to believe we could all be Wasps and socialize with each other in Southhampton.

For years, at its best, advertising did more than sell us a product. Look no further than Apple, Nike, VW, Coca Cola or Master Card to realize just how much a great campaign could inform or even inspire a cultural ideal.

But according to Kelsey, and others like Simon Mainwaring, that’s no longer enough. Events like 911, Hurricane Sandy, and The Great Recession — along with its aftermath of increasing income inequality — have combined to challenge our traditional definition of ideals. Was Master Card really enabling emotional memories at a baseball game with our kids?  Or coercing us into taking on credit we couldn’t really afford?

Add the impact of technology and social media, which has led to a proliferation of content, reduced attention on the part of consumers, and even an increased pressure on business to be more forthcoming and transparent, and brands have to be in the business of proving their ideals in everything they make, say and do. Which implies they better have some. Manufacturing ideals has become, or soon will be, near impossible.

That doesn’t mean profits are bad. Or even that they aren’t a primary objective. But rather that there has to be a sweet spot where the profit and purpose circles intersect. Right now we see examples that include IBM delivering data that helps cities be smarter. Cheerios helping families connect around mealtime. Coca Cola experimenting with promoting cross cultural unity. Shinola building its entire operation around bringing jobs back to Detroit.

Given an increased interest in brands with a purpose, along with the fact that there’s no shortage of problems in need of solutions, businesses and their marketing partners should work to accelerate momentum behind this movement.  As Kelsey suggests, it’s time for brands (and their agencies) to:

Define their long term purpose
Marry it with a genuine social need
Create valuable, shareable experiences

Where do you start?  Ask why your (or your client’s) brand exists.  Determine the relevant problems you can help solve.  Explore innovative and welcoming ways to invite participation from your community of users. Come up with some good answers, put them into effect, experiment and pivot if something doesn’t work and you’re on your way.

Seen any great examples of brand initiatives in this area? Please share.

Related Links

Unilever Project Sunlight

Patagonia

Cheerios Family Breakfast Project

24 comments
StephenWAnderson
StephenWAnderson

"Being approachable, generous, useful and fun will go a long way." All the way, there is nothing more important in the landscape of 21st century business.As businesses, we will reap what we sow and if we want have people do business with us, we need to be authentic.

benkunz
benkunz

@edwardboches I'm trying to think of a product I bought recently because the brand had a social purpose. Can you name one?

gavinwassung
gavinwassung

Rather than a simple "increased interest in brands with a purpose", what if we've discovered that it's a necessity for brands? Perhaps the social sphere is smart enough to see through it all. Maybe brands are suffering for lack of purpose and craving a solution. Some use cross-promotion like Snickers. It's sour and leaves a bad taste. The word fake comes to mind. Brands are realizing that you can't borrow purpose. You either have it or not. And like Simon Sinek says, it's really the why, not the what.

kpant
kpant

@edwardboches Thank you - and for the opportunity. hope the assignment delivers some innovative thinking and exciting ideas.

lacreid
lacreid

@benkunz but I definitely won't buy products associated to bigotry, hate, corruption.

lacreid
lacreid

@benkunz @edwardboches so... I bought a pair of TOD's for the purpose. I may actually buy another pair... Some day. Purpose *helps.*

edwardboches
edwardboches

@benkunz Admittedly I buy Apple despite labor and mineral sourcing. But do try and pay attention.

edwardboches
edwardboches

@benkunz Seventh Generation and Bio Klean products. Ben & Jerry's for support of gay marriage and other causes.

edwardboches
edwardboches

@benkunz Where to begin. Timberland (for sustainable manufacturing). Arron chair for same. Dove soap for positioning. 365 paper towels....

benkunz
benkunz

@lacreid Pop quiz: Rolex. Apple. Tide. BMW. Where do they stand on social issues 1-10? And do you really, really care?

benkunz
benkunz

@lacreid I agree consumers may avoid brands on the negative edge of social good. But I don't have time to think about the spiritual leanings of my toothpaste. Do you?

benkunz
benkunz

@edwardboches Brand social missions are aspirational. But I suspect they attract only fraction of the population.

lacreid
lacreid

@benkunz Maybe 3-5 tops. Would buy latter 3 regardless (not big on luxury watches). No, I don't care. Awesome product & service = ka-ching!

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@rnadworny @benkunz @edwardboches  At the end of the day, all a brand can do is hope to attract attention, overcome indifference and ultimately create a sale and perhaps get to loyalty. With all the competition for attention and with so many parity products, this is a meaningful way to at least create some differentiation.

Even if it only makes us feel better about brands we already use it can help convert customers to proud users to advocates.

And....if it didn't work at all, why would brands even try to do anything positive.  

Look at this. What's the point, Ben? They must believe there is value and eventual sales.


http://www.dandad.org/awards/new-blood/2014/categories/14/unilever



rnadworny
rnadworny

@benkunz @edwardboches My humble 2¢ - I'm not sure it impacts research or initial purpose. It may be the biggest effect happens afterward, a type of post-consumption bliss where added social mission makes the consumption (ice cream, winter jackets, shoes) all so much more enjoyable and validates the spend. If anything it might re-enforce brand loyalty and repeat purchases much more than initial purchase or word of mouth.

That's not a bad thing.

benkunz
benkunz

@edwardboches I like the concept but yes, I disagree with the utility of this research. The typical U.S. consumer purchases more than 80 products week -- between groceries, toiletries, gas, food, coffee, restaurants, clothing, entertainment, etc. -- making about 320 or more purchase decisions a month. I do not believe that for each of those decisions the social-good-metrics of each brand are evaluated carefully. Yes, for the lovers and haters on the edge of each brand perception spectrum, social good could tip toward more referrals or less hostility. It's probably especially important for brands trying to rehab their image (such as Walmart's forays recently into green energy and promoting better HR practices to calm down the anti-W crowd). But overall, I suggest while brands think about themselves a lot, consumers see most brands as plain products, and make purchase decisions based on the gratification they get from the instant purchase. I don't see too many Apple buyers concerned about worker conditions and salaries in China. If social good were really the metric consumers used to decide on the majority of our product purchases, America would not have outsourced our production pollution to China.

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@benkunz @edwardboches So, you argue with the research, eh? My guess is that more enlightened consumers use it as a tie breaker. And more brands are realizing that they can leverage and market their social good. Look at Unilever (questionable sometimes) and their D&AD call for students. Some brands inherently are of social value (one could argue that for Google or maybe Twitter.) Others are figuring out how to balance profit and purpose. Not sure if you noticed recently that Coca Cola is getting on the climate change bandwagon, as are some other big co's, as they realize that global warming is harming supply chains, resources, water, etc. Not saying it is all altruistic. But we will see more of it and my guess is that it will be a differentiator that benefits a brand.