The Purposeful Age | As activism goes mainstream brands must take their place in culture and society
Purpose-led brands resonate with
their audiences, including employees
Director of Social Media
We live in troubled times. Despite the tremendous advancements in technology, the world faces climate crisis, violence, poverty, discrimination, and hatred.
Should brands take a stand?
Multiple studies state that people expect corporations to contribute to society. A report by Unilever shows a third of consumers buying from brands based on their social and environmental impact.
Brave stands by brands with a clear purpose can produce favorable financial performance. Unilever observed brands that “have integrated sustainability into both their purpose and products growing 30 percent faster than the rest of the business.”
Harvard Business Review published “The Business Case For Purpose,” which showed that companies with “a strong sense of purpose are able to transform and innovate better, while it also helps to improve employee satisfaction.”
Key stakeholders: Employees
Smart companies know that their own employees are especially attuned to what that brand stands for in the public eye. Some of the top ads that ran during the 2017 Super Bowl—like the brilliant Budweiser immigrant story of founder Adolphus Busch—were a way to signal to employees that the corporation they work for values the multicultural nature of their workforce. (In spite of the current US administration’s regressive attitude, almost all families in the US cherish their own immigrant stories. My grandmother went through Ellis Island on her own as a teenager from Poland and married a first-generation Irish American; I’m a direct result of this melting pot.)
Corporate social lobbying
Even before the recent election, immigration issues were a major concern for tech giants like Google and Facebook that employ high-skilled foreign workers. Indeed, some such as Google and Yahoo! were co-founded by immigrants.
People who think brands have no place in anything political forget that for decades major corporations have hired public affairs professionals to represent their interests. As part of our specialist services, H+K has a bipartisan team of legislative and regulatory strategists that help clients navigate this space.
What’s different now is that brands driven by purpose are following the same north star in their marketing communications as they do in public affairs. Activism has entered mainstream culture. Going beyond the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs of the past, purpose-led companies are merging these efforts into the spotlight of their advertising and PR programs.
Purpose as a creative platform
Airbnb didn’t have to agonize about taking a stand in their own Super Bowl ad, ‘We Accept’. Their stated mission of helping people “belong anywhere” naturally leads to creative expressions of this commitment. And they prove this promise via actions like fighting any discrimination by hosts and providing donations and housing for refugees.
What’s interesting is that more established travel brands are getting on board. Expedia launched an ad about connecting across cultures during CNN's coverage of the US presidential inauguration, and Hyatt ran a message of acceptance during the Oscars.
Being a part of a bigger community is a hallmark of social conscious brands, but it can be expressed in small everyday actions as well as costly TV adverts. A team from my agency worked with local mall client Westfield on an Easter weekend activation called 'Revamp Camp: Customise your Closet'. In collaboration with the charity Save the Children, the workshops showed kids creative ways to dress up old clothes and keep them out of the landfill.
A higher purpose vs. the bottom line
“It’s not a principle until it costs you money,” said Bill Bernbach back in the day.
Now in its second year, outdoor recreation retailer REI’s much-awarded #OptOutside program is more of a movement than a marketing campaign. By closing all its stores on Black Friday, America’s biggest shopping day of the year, REI proved its commitment to outdoor adventure was more than an ad slogan.
What I especially like was the benefit to REI staff, who are outdoor enthusiasts themselves. For the first time, they got the day off.
REI’s CEO reports that “after #OptOutside we saw a 100% increase in applications for jobs in Q4 and our retention is double our retail competitors.” More proof that people want to work for a company who respects them and acts on their values.
Empathy and respect
For 2017, REI launched a new public effort called “Force of Nature,” a program designed to bring gender equity in the outdoors.
Sixty percent of women say that men’s interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women’s, according to REI’s 2017 National Study on Women and the Outdoors. So REI will focus their marketing efforts on women in 2017 to combat current male-dominated imagery of people in the outdoors.
This empathy and respect for their female customers reminds me of the equally empowering ‘This Girl Can” movement from Sport England, which encourages all women to be active.
There is no doubt we are in a cultural shift or course correction that seeks to end decades of tired clichés and stereotypes about women.
A personal favorite comes from ANZ Bank in Australia. “Pocket Money,” which shows girls getting paid less for chores than their brothers, is the most charming argument against the wage pay gap I’ve ever seen. And it’s part of a bigger program called #EqualFuture, designed to help achieve financial gender equity.
ANZ is a shining example of a brand being active in an area where they have a clear right to play. This is a key factor in successful brand activism.
To combat neo-Nazi graffiti polluting Berlin neighborhoods, a paint store enlisted street artists to “#PaintBack” by transforming the swastikas into flowers, bunnies, and other happy images. They took a visible stand against hate in a creative way—and won the 2016 Eurobest Design Grand Prix as a bonus.
Be bold for change
That was the theme for the most recent International Women’s Day. And it is great advice for any brand built around a purpose. We live in troubled times. Brands can and should be part of the solution.
WPP takes a stand
I was never more proud to work for WPP than when Sir Martin Sorrell went on stage at Cannes Lions with the other major holding companies and then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to launch Common Ground in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As Goal 17 states: “A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.”
WPP chose Goal 5: Gender Equality. As the H+K liaison for common Ground, this gave me the privilege of meeting with UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
A first step to support UN Women is to sign on to their Women’s Empowerment Principles, which “offer practical guidance to business and the private sector on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace and community.” Close to 1500 CEO’s have taken this stand for gender equality to date.