Today's Brand-Building Tools: Purpose And A Commitment to Cause

These are the times that try brands’ souls. Talk to brand managers and CMOs, and they’ll tell you the power balance between brands and consumers really is shifting. And fast.

Radical transparency and vocal consumers—powered by social media—are rewriting the rules of marketing every day. Brands are being forced to be more agile, with marketers scrambling to keep up with highly connected, fully participatory and increasingly demanding consumers. It’s a relentless pace that Target’s VP of PR, Dustee Tucker Jenkins, recently described as, “Hours are like days, days are like weeks, weeks are like months.” If this acceleration makes you dizzy, you’re not alone. 

Examples abound of organizations getting tangled up in values-driven, social media maelstroms—and experiencing negative impact on brand equity, reputation and license to operate. A few highlights: In September, Bank of America triggered a social media-fueled outburst by introducing a $5 monthly debit fee during the thick of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The company took a month to retreat, giving its brand a black eye from which smaller community banks are still benefitting. In contrast, Verizon took just one day to bow to outrage from introduction of a $2 bill-paying fee. Concerned about damage to the brand, the company quickly reversed course, citing “customer feedback.”



Aftershocks from Susan G. Komen’s decision to pull funding from Planned Parenthood are still reverberating; even though the organization rapidly reversed course, Komen events, fundraising and corporate partnerships continue to be affected. Next: pink slime. Within weeks after a whistleblower propelled this issue into the national spotlight, a backlash led fast-food chains and retailers to nix the ingredient and forced pink slime’s largest manufacturer to shut three of its four plants. Recently, even corporate social responsibility-standout Starbucks became a target when the company was attacked for using a (common) food coloring made from ground-up insects. Vocal vegans rose up, triggering a groundswell. As it rapidly moved to reformulate products, a contrite Starbucks said, “We fell short of your expectations.”

The key takeaway here? Get used to it. For decades, marketers have had it too easy, following a rote formula: define your brand’s equity, communicate consistent messaging, deliver reasonable product performance, wrap everything in enough emotion to get people to feel something and pray that your competition does something different. No more. Welcome to a brave new world for brands and the people who build them. Expect this whipsaw cycle to become the norm: 1) Brands inevitably fail expectations of stakeholders (often a small minority group); 2) This stirs up populist outrage propelled by new and traditional media; 3) Which forces companies to change direction to make it all go away. 

Concurrently, brands are being impacted by another powerful force: rising expectations of brands as change agents. Our research shows consumers around the world agree that companies have a responsibility to make the world better, with 94% declaring companies exist to do more than just make money. As Marc Pritchard, CMO of P&G, puts it, “People want to know who is the company behind the brands. What are the values? Are they interested in more than making money? What is its purpose?”

What should business leaders do? Head for higher ground. And stay there. Follow the lead of forward-thinking brands like Patagonia and Target that have deeply embraced cause and a commitment to positive societal impact to navigate today’s complex, values-driven environment. What these brands know is that when it comes to societal impact, there is no standing on the sidelines. 

Companies need to give time-worn brand management tool kits a heart transplant—putting purpose and a commitment to cause at the center of everything brands do:

  1. Clearly defined purpose: Dig deep to uncover your brand purpose, completing the phrase: “We exist to ...” Aim for a concise statement, with the crystalline clarity of a Disney (“To make people happy”) or Merck (“Preserve and improve human life”). Done right, this becomes a beacon by which to navigate strategy and execution choices.
  2. Authentic commitment to cause: Cause is about leveraging a commitment to issues to drive business and societal benefits. The issue(s) a brand tackles should support its purpose and equity. Ask: “What do we care about? What unique assets do we have? What do we know how to do?” Take a page from Pampers—a stellar example of what P&G terms a “purpose-driven, benefit-focused brand.” To cement its equity of fostering babies’ development, Pampers partners with UNICEF to protect moms and babies through its "1 Pack = 1 Vaccine" cause program. Perfect symmetry. 

Welcome to the latest battle for the hearts and minds of consumers. The convergence of radical transparency and ever-higher expectations about how companies and brands should act is, quite simply, transforming the business landscape. Brands—corporate and nonprofit alike—that don’t embrace this revolution risk irrelevance to the consumers of today and tomorrow. 

4 comments about "Today's Brand-Building Tools: Purpose And A Commitment to Cause ".
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  1. David Hessekiel from Cause Marketing Forum, Inc., April 30, 2012 at 10:19 a.m.

    Well done CB! A very articulate description of the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers.

  2. Nick Cavarra from Quigley Simpson, May 1, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.

    Scott Pansky and I were just discussing this very issue last night before his class. The days of slapping a sticker on your product that benefits a cause that makes no sense for your brand or the cause are numbered. For a far better example of integration, check out what Panera Cares has done when they use their exact business model (QSR Bakery/Restaurant) but apply a CSR strategy to benefit the hungry. To quote their CEO, Mr. Shaich states, “Imagine a world in which Walmart does the distribution for all the food banks, The Gap runs thrift shops, Home Depot is involved in rebuilding neighborhoods.” Talk about true integration of cause and corporate capabilities and mission. That could be the future. Check out his video discussing Panera Cares here:

  3. Craig Bida from Cone Communications, May 20, 2012 at 11:52 a.m.

    David- Thanks for the kind words. It is indeed an exciting time for brands! It must be rewarding for someone like you, who has been deeply involved in Cause for so long, to see where things are today. Craig

  4. Craig Bida from Cone Communications, May 20, 2012 at 12:17 p.m.

    Nick- Thanks for your comments. I agree: Panera Cares has been a terrific example of corporate leadership in social innovation. It will be great to see the impact Panera can have as they scale this effort beyond its current footprint. Craig

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