In a Substack last September where I talk about actionist brands, I urged marketers to regain relevance by embracing a social purpose. I pointed out that they have the expertise and resources that nonprofits and governmental organisations often lack, and that the profit motive actually encourages them to treat people with dignity by pushing them to consider their needs and aspirations. But there’s a glaring problem: too often marketers adopt a social cause merely as positioning, rather than a true purpose.
This focus on positioning is also at the crux of greenwashing, where companies superficially take on environmental causes in order to boost their appeal with customers or employees. Purpose-washing operates similarly: it involves a company adopting a purpose only as a kind of positioning, often accompanied with some donations or volunteering, but not engendering any real action. Purpose-washing, unfortunately, is so widespread that it calls into question whether brands can seriously deliver on a real social or environmental purpose. As Mark Ritson has argued in a powerful blog post, this ambiguity is the “ancient error of brand inconsistency”, making these efforts appear hypocritical, if not intentionally devious.
Ritson points to several examples of brands articulating a purpose to stay relevant, without actually delivering on their stated purpose. Ritson highlights the hypocrisy of Starbucks expressing its support for local community while minimising the local taxes it pays, and Gillette advocating for gender equality while charging women substantially more for essentially the same razors it offers men.
The key distinction here though is between brand positioning and brand purpose. True brand purpose is a fundamental commitment, not another hook for selling. It is so embedded in the business model that it fuels innovations. When successfully deployed, it is hard-wired into the company that operates the brand. True brand purpose inevitably forces hard decisions that may run against the short-term bottom line. While I strongly believe in holding brands accountable for delivering on their stated purpose, I think Ritson and some of the recent critics for example of Unilever have been slightly reductive. They too keenly see purpose as merely another kind of positioning, effective only if it is consistent while resonating with customers. In doing so, they fail to account for the real depth of true brand purpose.
When I worked for Unilever, its Dove brand ran a “Real Beauty” marketing campaign combatting unhealthy stereotypes for women and girls. The campaign was born in 2004 and ran well into the mid-2010s before Unilever – rightly – was called out for the company’s brand Axe relying on those same stereotypes in much of its advertising. Unilever as a whole supported social progress, as it had demonstrated through Lifebuoy promoting handwashing with any soap, not just its own brand. So, Axe had to change – and it did. In 2016, it did a strategy U-turn and even issued an apology for its sexist ads.
Decisions like these have made Unilever a flag bearer of brand purpose for the past decade. Those purpose-led brands have also enjoyed above-average growth. Even in the more recent challenging sales environment, Unilever remains committed to social causes.
Embracing a Social Purpose
Modern companies are highly efficient, well-organised machines for minimising costs and maximising sales. That’s a good thing, as they’ve delivered much of the affluence we now take for granted. But companies must do more than deliver quality goods at an affordable price. They need to be actively involved in overcoming the social challenges of our times, including some exacerbated by their own past effectiveness (and ineffectiveness).
Some critics ask why we can’t just expand the “B Corporations” movement to help tackle our social challenges. These companies explicitly (and legally) put purpose above profits. Yet we shouldn’t do so for two reasons: first, because these organisations are always likely to represent a relatively small part of the economy. But second, more importantly, is because a true brand commitment to a social purpose can actually boost investor returns in the long run and you don’t need to be B-Corp for this. Brand purpose not only improves a brand’s positioning, but also becomes a source of competitive advantage.
This is something experienced by REI, the American outdoor equipment retailer, who as a company is deeply committed to people spending time outside. Starting four years ago, before the pandemic, it decided to close its stores every year on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, often the biggest shopping day of the year. It urges employees instead to spend the day outdoors, and to ask a friend or family member to join them. Whilst this has meant lost sales on Black Friday itself, the company has thrived. This hard decision, amidst broader efforts to deliver on its brand purpose, has given the brand some authenticity to customers and employees.
Many marketers are still learning how to do this well, avoiding purpose-washing while making a difference and giving investors a competitive return. What worked in the 20th century – mere corporate social responsibility – is no longer enough. Our social challenges, such as detailed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), need the resources and expertise of for-profit companies. True commitment to a social purpose will ensure those challenges get the sustained resources and attention needed to achieve the goals by 2030.
We’re now entering a new phase of development where purpose will actually energise brands for both consumers, employees and investors. It’s still early days, with many challenges for brands – presenting opportunities for criticism – as they move up the learning curve. So far in these Substack articles I’ve highlighted companies that are on a positive trajectory. Over time, I’ll report not just intriguing success stories, but guidelines and lessons learned for brands overall.
Brand purpose can certainly be a much harder sell than brand positioning, both internally and to investors – as we have seen recently for Unilever. But besides increasing the brand’s superficial appeal, it will help drive sustainable solutions to problems that the world so desperately needs to address.