The Four Pillars of Brand Purpose & Social Change

The Four Pillars of Brand Purpose & Social Change

Promoting brand purpose is all the rage at the moment, but it can backfire if executed badly. Tony Wright explores four key aspects to bear in mind for your next big campaign.

By Tony Wright

In the aftermath of the Iceland and Greenpeace Christmas ad ban, it feels as though we have reached a critical point in the rise of brand activism and campaigns that drive a message around social purpose.

This type of activity has the ability to make or break a brand. Done well, the results can be game-changing. Just look at what Iceland has achieved with an ad that didn’t even run - brand consideration has soared, Iceland’s reputation as an employer has increased, and it’s now the second most talked about supermarket, according to YouGov.

Done badly, a brand’s reputation could be in tatters. How could we forget the Pepsi Kendall Jenner disaster from 2017? The brand suffered its lowest consumer perception in 10 years following its poorly executed ad which was criticised for using the Black Lives Matter movement for commercial gain.  

For decades now, brands have been putting their corporate social responsibility objectives at the forefront of their marketing activities, from the original innovators like The Body Shop and Benetton, to Ben & Jerry’s, which are examples of brands almost entirely built on political angles and socio-cultural views.  

However, it’s only in the last couple of years or so that we’ve seen this type of marketing dialling up, with almost all major global brands doing at least something in the area. What's more, it seems to be making a real impact - in a recent survey by Channel 4, 56% of 16-34-year-olds claimed they are willing to pay more for ethical products (compared to 44% of 35 and overs) whilst 41% said they have boycotted a brand because they didn’t agree with what it stood for (compared to 33% of those aged 35 and over).

That’s a pretty significant change in attitude from older to younger generations. And one that brands simply can’t ignore if they want to appeal to the all-important Millennial and Gen Z audiences.

But with so much at stake, how can brands navigate the pressure to align with a cause that’s right for them and how should this be presented creatively? For marketing teams, there's an increasingly thinning line between getting it right and landing on your behind. With that in mind, here are the four pillars of executing brand purpose successfully, along with real-life examples from the big names of our time:

1. Relevance
There’s got to be a sensible and appropriate link between what a brand is, who its audiences are and what they do in terms of brand purpose. Choosing the wrong topic and cause will confuse and puzzle rather than resonate. 

Take Starbuck’s ill-fated #RaceTogether campaign in 2015. Trying to talk about racial tension in the US when only two of the brand’s 19 executives were African American went down like a lead balloon. It wasn’t researched, tested, or thought-through properly.

On the other hand, North Face is one of the best examples of getting relevance right, time and time again. Its Walls Are Meant For Climbing activities relate to its outdoor-wear products while also tackling political issues. Climbing’s a booming sport globally and one a lot of its customers will relate to. Then there’s the subtle nod towards, or rather against, a certain President’s fondness of advocating walls between nations.

2. Execution
Being aligned to the right cause or topic is only the first part. Executing the activity with the right message and tone is the next. By nature, purpose-driven campaigns trigger highly charged emotions amongst consumers. One wrong move and you could have an epic backlash. 

Look at the trouble Dove got itself into with its Body Positive packaging. When Dove launched a new range of packaging that reflected the variety of body shapes amongst UK women, it felt wrong. The public thought the comparison between a plastic body wash bottle and a real woman’s body was ridiculous and they did not hold back in letting Dove know how they felt.

3. Commitment
It's no longer enough to simply say you stand for something. As more brands become vocal regarding topics and causes they feel strongly about, the more important it will be to practice what is preached.

A solid example of this is Axe/Lynx’s #isitokforguys campaign, which was a brilliant campaign around masculinity and identity, in partnership with NGO Promundo. It puts right some of the brand’s much older advertising which portrayed a particular stereotype of men and taps into a growing topic in culture and society. Ideally, we will see them stick to the issue, building on the campaign to continue and deepen the conversation.

4. Bravery
Whilst bravery brings with it a greater level of risk, it can also generate much greater payoff, as Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign and its supporting videos demonstrate.

Getting behind the NFL star in such a big, global way generated immediate praise on the one hand, with many people backing the boldness, strong point-of-view and beautifully crafted creative. 

On the other hand, there was social media backlash, with some Nike owners going as far as to burn their purchases. My hunch here is that in the long-run, Nike’s campaign will pay off for them as it’s rooted in a strong brand positioning and attitude which dates back decades. Politicians and their parties fade in and out of fashion. A passion and dedication to sport less so.

It's a fine line

There’s much debate about whether brands should even be focussing on brand purpose at all. Part of me, at times, thinks marketers have forgotten what they’re primarily meant to be doing – selling a product. 

Many marketers’ minds have wandered away from the original objective of shifting stock and improving the bottom line, towards activity that’s emotive. Or worse still, brands think they have the right to become political figures and take on huge social issues that they're ill-equipped to deal with.

What's more, as we've seen from the huge rise in social media marketing, the general public are inundated with marketing messages. Audiences are becoming increasingly adept at spotting what’s good, believable, sincere and authentic versus what’s half-baked, and under-developed.

As such, there's a lot to learn from the past few years when it comes to planning out next year's marketing campaigns and brand purpose, and it seems that there is a lot to lose if you put a toe out of line. No matter what your marketing strategy consists of, staying relevant and doing your homework are vital components in a time where consumers are able to make or break a campaign thanks to the power of social media.

About the Author

With over 12 years’ experience working in digital and social media marketing, Tony is responsible for developing eight&four’s strategic service offering across the agency’s roster of lifestyle, hospitality, food & beverage and not-for-profit brands. This includes British Heart Foundation, Melia Hotel Group, Pernod Ricard (Abelour, The Glenlivet and Royale Salute) and Wyndham Hotels.