Brand Leaders: Here’s How To Avoid The Purpose Trap
“What’s my brand purpose?” has become the question on most every marketer’s mind. Countless luminaries, marketing texts and conference keynotes exhort marketers to embrace their inner purpose. A number of brands have provided inspiring examples of how to drive business results through higher meaning. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is credited with generating a huge lift in social following and double-digit increases in sales. The Always Like a Girl campaign was a powerful anthem and an effective sales driver. Additional urgency now may be added to the purpose drive with a recent Weber Shandwick study showing that nearly half of all millennials expect CEOs to weigh in on matters of social importance.
These ventures into bigger issues have not always been successful, though, with some brands finding themselves having to backtrack from cringeworthy forays into social significance. The purpose stampede also seems to be generating some unintended consequences more broadly: a recent study shows increasing consumer cynicism and mistrust at what they see as brands insincerely hopping on the bandwagon of ill-fitting social causes. Marketers must be careful to avoid falling into the purpose trap and doing their brand more harm than good as they seek larger meaning.
When a brand does latch onto purpose, there seems to be little middle ground—it tends to be either a resonant success or a haunting failure. The energized and polarized climate has raised the stakes and the risk/reward implications, with social media providing ready outlets for support or indignation. For every Always Like a Girl bullseye there seems to be a Pepsi Kendall Jenner misfire. Before marketers choose to hitch their marketer to a social issue they must go through a careful, clear-eyed thought process to avoid the purpose trap:
Do an honest values assessment. Dig deep and articulate what (if any) issues or values are near and dear to the brand’s heart. This means going beyond the usually bloodless mission statement, and identifying core drivers and passionate beliefs that are strong enough to be worth potentially suffering some pain. The risk here is that a brand hop on a timely bandwagon without any genuine commitment to the issue, resulting in an awkwardly inconsistency. Witness Audi and its Superbowl ad proclaiming commitment to equal pay for women when it had none in the C-suite.
Ensure internal alignment. Getting key stakeholders on the same page is critical. Wading into the social purpose arena involves risk, and it’s essential that senior management and the board be aware and supportive. Nothing is worse than discovering internal disconnects when the stuff hits the fan. After Target announced its bathroom policy in North Carolina, and suffered significant consumer blowback and loss of foot traffic, it emerged that PR had not aligned with the CEO on its plan to publicize the policy. Target has since defined a more crisp approval process for social hot-button communications.
Find the brand’s authentic role. It’s not enough to decide that world peace is a good purpose. Marketers must find the honest overlap between the brand’s identity or function and that larger issue. Simply believing in an issue or value is not enough. Without a credible connection, the brand risks generating cynicism and backlash from an implausible overreach. Placing Pepsi at the center of social conflict prompted what may be the most devastating tweet in recorded history, from Martin Luther King’s daughter: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi”.
Set appropriate aspirations. A great way to spark negative reactions is to claim (even implicitly) that a brand can catalyze great change and move mountains beyond all credibility. Having identified the brand’s authentic role, marketers must set their sights on change that is credible. Heineken’s World’s Apart nailed this challenge, and aspired not to create harmony and world peace, but rather to simply get people with different points of view talking with each other.
Be real, not polished. Big brands have a natural tendency to present carefully curated personas to the world. And yet polish and perfection are antithetical to authenticity. In The Kim Kardashian Principle, celebrity authority Jeetendr Sehdev highlights the reality star’s strategy of unabashedly (over) sharing her imperfections—as opposed to the more classic Hollywood urge to hide all blemishes. By over-producing and over-curating their purpose-driven marketing, brands risk undermining the resonance, authenticity and credibility of the message.
Follow through beyond the ad. An inspiring piece of film can capture attention, but only action in the real world will convince a skeptical consumer that a brand is committed to an issue. Before creating marketing assets around a cause, marketers must be clear about the roadmap for a sustained drumbeat of activity that demonstrates their sincerity. Beyond their powerful Like a Girl video, Always sponsors programs with the International Olympic Committee, TED and other organization to inspire confidence in girls.
The final—and perhaps most important — ingredient for success in purpose marketing is courage. Wading into the social purpose arena is not for the faint of heart. As they avoid the brand trap, marketers must summon the intestinal fortitude to declare their beliefs and stick to them even when the going gets tough. Because with consumer feeling running so hot across a divided marketplace, along with death and taxes, one can surely count on a tough day to come.
Originally posted on FORBES.
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