Brands with a Societal Legacy

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by James Vella Clark


In a recent article about doing marketing with a mission, published in the Harvard Business Review, the author argues that “brands can and must play a critical role in tackling global health issues, from violence to infectious disease to poor fitness and diet.”

It is an assertion that can set any business leader and marketeer thinking. Because when push comes to shove, people will retort with the proverbial “but it’s business.” So, this begs the question: ‘Are businesses there to make profit and deliver value to their shareholders or to make society better?’

I would say both.

Naturally, a better, healthier, and happier society is a society with a higher feel-good factor, and we all know that the higher the feel-good factor, the more people tend to want to consume.

At face value, this might sound egoistic. However, it is only egoistic if considered outside the wider context where all businesses and brands should be willing to strike a healthy balance between profit, ethical behaviour, and societal well-being.

Brands should never underestimate their potential for social reach. Those who do, miss out on a huge opportunity to bring the much-needed societal change. And we all know how much change society needs to undergo at this point in time.

When brands become attuned to the potential role they can be playing in their respective communities, the way they will start communicating will be one with a purpose. This purpose will define what they stand for as brands, what their place is in the community and why their role matter.

There is also some fascinating and useful research that is demonstrating how brands with perceived positive impact are outperforming brands who partially show purpose or show nothing at all.

One particular study, the Kantar Purpose 2020 study showed how over a period of 12 years the brands with high perceived positive impact have a brand value growth of 175%, versus 86% for medium positive impact and 70% for low positive impact.

Saying that your organisation has a defined purpose means nothing if this purpose is not tangibly defined and factually activated. And while the majority of market leaders might believe that purpose drives long-term growth, much less companies tend to turn their purpose into a shared company-wide movement within their organisation.

No matter a company’s purpose, this should never be viewed as a marketing opportunity but as a ‘systematic approach to change’. In fact, as brand purpose gradually becomes a more mature and integrated discipline, the successful brands will be those who will manage to create purpose by being more innovative and delivering products and services in new and better ways.

Brands can also communicate purpose by taking political stands that are aligned with their core values. Consumers will always stand by those brands who have specific views on societal issues and who are bold enough to express them by campaigning for them. Activism is on the rise and as the leadership void becomes wider, brands can find their purpose and shine by standing up to what they believe is right and, in the process, create meaningful connections with people.

Brand purpose is also an effective means to engage and inspire your own people and the impact that a company with a clearly stated and implemented purpose can have on talent can never be overstated; brands and companies with a social purpose tend to energize their employees and give them a stronger sense of belonging. People want to be part of the change and they will affiliate with companies who bring them the change they want. Brand purpose can also attract talent. Research by LinkedIn showed how an organisation’s purpose is increasingly becoming a deciding factor for professionals as they consider whether to take up a job offer or not.

Brand purpose is also being driven by business circularity which involves more conscious decisions about how we manage resources, how we create and use products, and how we capture the value of materials. It is a concept that is driving innovation and disruption even internally as companies and business leaders are finding themselves challenged to question their ingrained processes and to transform the ways that they understand their own business. Therefore, brand purpose means moving away from ‘business as usual’ and finding purpose in a deeper existence.

Finally, brands can discover meaningful purpose through partnerships with innovative NGOs, social enterprises and start-ups that can enable breakthrough innovation and help solve new problems, feeding exciting new incubator approaches and invest in ideas that can help solve environmental and social problems.

Brand purpose is not about corporate responsibility but about acknowledging the opportunity to use resources to contribute to a better world in new and better ways, using their resources and scale for good. It is not about ‘good’ but ‘less bad and more good’.

Some brands have the power to build a meaningful purpose that resonates on a global level, amplifying their core values to the extent of creating a whole movement. Other brands might not be big enough to change the world, but their little contribution can be the source of small changes in their immediate communities.