Defining And Activating Your Model Objective
I've seen brands serve a social purpose in two ways. One is to go back to the foundation of the brand and understand the reason for its existence. Brands often forget their original purpose in the hunt for growth. Marketers focus on functionality and new features. However, this does not mean that the original purpose is irrelevant.
Rescue antibacterial soap began as a soap specifically designed to fight cholera in 19th century Britain. It was, therefore, a simple extension to embrace a 21st century mission to fight disease in developing countries through better hand washing.
The same principle applies well beyond obvious public health products – including makeup. Ukonwa Ojo, former Coty Chief Marketing Officer, recommends “Going into the brand's archives. Most of the time, you will find a compelling reason why the founders did what they did, and even though years have passed, that reason is still powerful. “CoverGirl, one of Coty's main brands, was launched in 1961 to bring the cosmetics used in fashion magazines to common women and girls so they wouldn't feel left out. CoverGirl still has the same mission, just defined in different ways. It was the first line of cosmetics to have a brand ambassador wearing a hijab so that with this cover on girls would not feel alienated from the beauty talk.
Some brands have had a social mission for decades without explicitly talking about the purpose and before the term became fashionable. Unilever's Indian subsidiary is perhaps an extreme case, focused more on the company than a product brand, but still illustrative. Nitin Paranjpe, now Unilever's Chief Operating Officer, has spent most of his 31-year career with Hindustan Unilever Limited. Nobody talked about brands on purpose in the 1990s:
The company's executives always said, "If it's right for India, it's right for us." Because we have seen each other in this country for a hundred years and the only way you will succeed is by integrating with the needs of society. My proudest example was the Shakti program to build a distribution network in remote villages. The idea was simple: how can you develop people's skills while expanding our reach? We've taught women how to sell products in small places where conventional distribution is too costly. We have worked at the intersection between what is good for business and what is good for society.
The other approach is to discover a major social problem related to the product regardless of why the brand was created in the first place. That connection is important – a mission that is separate from the product won't work because it's not authentic and doesn't support the brand's business model.
Unilever's Dove brand began in 1957 as a dry skin soap with special moisturizers. When humidification became a commonplace proposition, Dove marketers looked for a new problem. From around 2000 onwards, they took on the mission to overcome notions of perfect beauty that led women to think less about their own bodies. Bad body image can cause a variety of social problems, from low productivity and stunted careers to depression and suicide. Dove developed a number of provocative ads, some of which criticized its own industry, while becoming the world's largest provider of self-esteem for girls.
A social cause strategy requires a lot of evidence
Taking on a social purpose can be invigorating, but marketers need to be careful not to jump on an issue, use it for the brand's good, and move on to the next opportunity, especially when the public sector criticizes their efforts. To be believable and authentic, they must first invest time and effort in learning. Then they need to build a substance behind their efforts. Only then should they communicate about these efforts.
That includes welcoming accountability. Real brands with an authentic purpose must accept and even seek external validation by independent verifiers. People who really believe in their mission will care about the real impact. They want to be transparent on their way of learning, spreading what they found, creating allies and taking consumers away.
Brands also need to do some sort of hygiene check. You won't get very far if the brand, or even the parent company, offers products or messages that appear to many consumers to be a long-term threat to health and wellbeing. Products from tobacco and armaments to infant formula can conflict with the mission. Businesses ultimately rely on a social license to operate and maintain their legitimacy for business.
Otherwise, as Ukonwa Ojo says, consumers will see through the purpose: where there is a divide between what the brand is driving and what the brand actually stands for, you will see a lot of missteps. People scratch the surface and find nothing there except the fact that marketers wanted to establish a communication.
Contribution to Branding Strategy Insider by: Myriam Sidibe with permission from Routledge. Extracting and Adapting Brands on a Mission, How to Achieve Social Goals and Business Growth Through Purpose.
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