This new wave of purpose comes with a caveat: brands are eager to jump on the most popular causes, and sometimes forget about their own, true essence.
Purpose should be personal. It should be lived and breathed every day, from the brand's core and through each of the organisation's values. We creatives are here to ensure that is the direction we move towards. Lest we find ourselves in an industry which is much socially active, but also much shallow.
There is an interesting argument to be made here that "CSR is about the destinations, purpose is all about the journey." We reached out to Colin Kennedy, CEO at Redwood BBDO, to learn more about the topic below.
Go your own way
Purpose is personal. Confusing brand purpose with CSR or being rerouted by popular causes will prevent you from building deeper meaning with your core consumers
Booksmart director Olivia Wilde has a simple rule when it comes to the people she will work with and the kind of movie-set she wants to oversee – “no assholes”. For brands seeking to navigate a minefield of social causes in social spaces, ‘Wilde’s law’ is a useful if-in-doubt-shorthand for corporate conduct. Engaged audiences may not carry a full rundown of the brand behaviours they will happily mix with – but it definitely starts with “no assholes”.
With Coca-Cola (belatedly) siding with angels over assholes in Georgia – where democracy is under assault – brand ally-ship is having a moment. This is unquestionably a very good thing. But all vaccines can have unfortunate side effects and the avalanche of “woke capitalism” hot-takes are further blurring the boundaries of brand politics and brand purpose.
This is unfortunate, not just because purpose was already an easy punching bag for “working media” wonks, but because finding your voice is rarely the same thing as communicating your purpose, and the news stories that capture mass attention are often entirely different from the stories you must tell to build brand meaning with your core consumers.
So, here’s the TL;DR definitions.
If you report on it annually, it’s CSR. If you live it daily, it’s purpose. And if you only ever engage on it when the social mob is spooking shareholders, it’s performative cause-jacking and you’re skating close to breaking Wilde’s law.
Still here? Let’s break it down further.
Authenticity is King
Like financial objectives, CSR is often expressed as a series of targets to be met – diversity statistics, sustainability innovations, charitable initiatives. But setting stretchy CSR metrics is the table-stakes of corporate governance – the operating minimum of not being an asshole. And in the same way that growth goals should not be confused with business vision, the calculus required to be a good global citizen should not be substituted for a higher brand purpose that can prove harder to measure.
Beyond meeting CSR-goals, some brands are driving genuine social change. But like any kind of driving, taking the wheel is not the same as cadging a ride. There’s a vast difference between tentative tweets on MLK-day and Ben & Jerry’s genuinely angry anti-police screed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. At the same time – leading brands should still proceed towards the front of any mass rally with due caution. After all, few brand owners have Ben & Jerry’s activist credentials.
Activism may still be something you choose to do, but purpose should be something you live – which means it needs to be an enthusiastic stretch, not a brand-breaking exercise.
A narrower brand purpose may also naturally intersect with broader social issues when stars align. Indeed, many of the Gen Z-skewing brands that have pioneered purpose happen to be on a brand mission that has comfortably crossed over with larger cultural trends. This is not to minimise the creativity of Dove’s early championing of beauty confidence or to take a cynical view of Nike’s profit-motive in being the first to take a knee to support Colin Kaepernick, it is simply to note that the venn diagram of overlapping objectives set these famous purpose campaigns up for a win-win-win.
In short: authenticity is king. Every brand needs to take sustainability actions, but not every brand can have the money-where-our-mouth-is credibility to call out President Trump like Patagonia. Tracking news headlines will never hand you a ready-made brand mission. And picking a purpose primarily because it helps fulfil Byron Sharp’s “Get noticed” decree is likely a shortcut to short-term growth only.
So, what is authentic brand purpose?
When we talk about a higher-level purpose we are basically asking where your product fits into a consumer’s lifestyle, not what retail SKU it sits in. How does your product help your audience achieve the things they really care about, rather than the things you want them to care about? In other words, it’s from the shelf directly above, not some other store.
When Redwood started working with AkzoNobel (aka Dulux) they had a great higher purpose in place: the power of colour to transform lives. This purpose was made manifest primarily through a series of terrific CSR initiatives – most notably they had just transformed squares in the Rio’s Santa Marta favela into colourful sport courts in time for the 2016 Olympics.
Meanwhile, at the sharp end of product marketing, things were still in black and white. In a low interest category awash with low-cost competitors, the brand-out communications were fixated on price cuts and product tweaks.
Our approach to resolve this was simple: live your purpose.
We used data to show that from a consumer viewpoint the highest category AkzoNobel operated in was not decorative paint – but happy home lives. We also argued that if colour really held the power to transform those lives our primary job was to prove it not just with big brand acts but in a great many relatable ways that showed the emotional transformation on real people. We called this strategy People Create Colour – and through a series of influencer and UGC campaigns focused on key life moments like moving home we gradually fused purpose into the heart of product-marketing. Non-working media working hard on behalf of working media.
To date, five years on, we take no active role in the set-piece CSR-fireworks but we do help AkzoNobel live their purpose full-funnel. Which is the point. In many ways the test of a big purpose is how small it can get, because only intimate acts truly integrate into social spaces. In an industry that is predicated on “Superbowl moments” this subtle point can sometimes get lost: purpose should aim big, but it doesn’t have to be grand.
Ultimately, what gives brands purpose is the same thing that gives humans happiness: measurable progress towards a meaningful goal. But what goal? Well, if it’s an authentic one then it should be personal, and, in some real way, unreachable. Brand purpose is in this sense simply a proxy for brand passion. And when you are truly passionate about something, there is always tomorrow, forever better.
CSR is about the destinations – purpose is all about the journey.
So if you want to take stock of where your brand is on its own purpose journey, try answering this deceptively simplequestion – “Who do you retweet?” We ask this question of all our new clients, because promoting the posts of a fellow traveller, someone who happens to share your passion, is the hallmark of commitment to a cause. Of living purpose.
The grand gestures you make when the world is looking? That’s the easy part. The little things you do daily when the circus has moved on? That’s what separates you from the assholes.