Published in May-Jun 2015
A time traveller from the 80s would find it very strange that it is now normal for a toiletries brand to speak as though it is not just in the business of selling products, but also stirred by a mission to improve society and alleviate the conditions of those who are downtrodden or having their potential limited or just not getting what is their due.
I am talking about Dove, of course, which has in many ways invented the modern playbook for what is called Higher Purpose Branding (HPB) – the idea that brands can act a bit like pressure groups and choose to champion issues they feel they are qualified to talk about in the public sphere.
HPB is undoubtedly a big trend. When Dove announced its ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ over a decade ago, it stood out as very unusual. By the time Cannes Lions 2013 came around, the following campaigns were being held up as best practice:
IBM made billboards into seats and shelters for weary travellers. Dela Dela Funeral Insurance encouraged us to be nice to relatives, before they die. Channel 4 saluted paralympic athletes. Smart Communications provided textbooks for poor schoolchildren using old mobile phones. Oreo cookies celebrated diversity. Recife Football Club encouraged organ donation. P&G has become the world’s proud sponsor of moms (that last one is quite a turnaround; when I started in the business they were an anonymous chemical company). Dove’s latest expression of their ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ also received plaudits.
Brands appear to have reimagined their role and importance to society. They have escaped the confines of their categories and are making cultural interventions in the national or even international conversation. At the Cannes Lions 2014 there was no sign of any abatement in HPB.
Consumer preference and staff motivation
HPB is based on the belief that people don’t just buy what you do, they also buy why you do it. Put another way the model is this: “Love my values, love my brand.” Nielsen have been tracking this trend and reported the following in June 2014: “Fifty-five percent will pay extra for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact.“ HPB also has a profound impact on company culture. Nielsen also reports that “Sixty seven percent prefer to work for socially responsible companies.” People who believe in the higher purpose of their company are more likely to stay longer and perform better. And, as most companies are at some level service companies, this also translates into better customer experience. Unilever’s re-engineering of the entire company around sustainability – The Five Levers of Change – is already reaping rewards, as they are now getting the pick of the crop of university graduates who want to work for a company that has a higher purpose than simply making money. No surprise then that HPB has taken off – it demonstrably builds consumer preference and staff motivation. Yet, like all big trends, a number of forces have flowed together to make it mainstream. HPB has a deeper history.
Challenger brands and sustainable differentiation
In his book, Eating the Big Fish, Adam Morgan anatomises how challenger brands have differentiated themselves through the personalities and beliefs of charismatic founders such as Ben and Jerry’s (ice cream), Richard Branson (several markets) and the late Anita Roddick. In very competitive markets it is often difficult to “invent a dramatically better mousetrap” and if you do, it will be quickly copied. You may be able to copy the products but you will not be able to copy the attitudes and beliefs of people like Anita Roddick. She was a human rights activist and environmental campaigner who founded The Body Shop as a beacon of ethical consumerism. Never has an entrepreneur been more ahead of the curve. Dove is in many ways the inheritor of her mantle. Profoundly held and publically stated beliefs are a way of creating sustainable differentiation in highly competitive markets. HPB is also a way of penetrating a market in the first place. For the cash strapped business startup it is a very cost efficient way of creating brand fame in the form of free publicity. Opinionated entrepreneurs with a different point of view on the world are always good copy for journalists, especially if they are on a mission to kick over the established order and make things better for the little guy. The myth of David and Goliath is deeply embedded in our collective psyche.
Hippy idealism meets global capitalism
Silicon Valley is another highly influential force in HPB. California over the past 20 years has produced a peculiar blend of cyber utopianism, hippy idealism and red in tooth and claw, liberal free market capitalism. Companies like Google and Twitter are classic challenger brands founded with high ideals. At Apple, Steve Jobs’ mantra was nothing so mundane as merely to sell computers; he said he gave people the tools to change the world. As big tech companies have gone public and made fabulous wealth for their founders, we have seen a kind of spiritual struggle for the souls of these companies. Company founders assert and re-assert their higher purpose mission and none more so than Google. Famously its founders repudiated the temptations of power with their line “don’t be evil” and subsequently the company has invested in other high profile common good programmes. I am not cynical about Sergey Brin and Larry Page (although I should declare an interest as a long-term contractor of their company) as I think they really believe what they say – just as Anita Roddick did. I am not so sure about Uber though, which seems to me a straightforward attempt to create a highly profitable business by using technology to disrupt incumbents in a market. In this respect Uber is the heir to that other great business disrupter – Amazon – rather than the more idealistic Google. But even Uber feels the need to promote its brand through a stated aim to improve society. Here is a recent announcement from Uber: “Today, UN Women and Uber are launching a partnership to work together around the world towards a shared vision of equality and women empowerment. We intend to invest in long term programmes in local communities where we live and work, as Uber commits to creating 1,000,000 jobs for women globally on the Uber platform by 2020.” Who knows what the Uber platform will be in 2020? Is this just a cloak for a profit hungry business disrupter, or are they sincere in their higher purpose mission?
Time will tell.
Campaigning on a hot societal issue garners free publicity for a brand, especially with the power of social networks to spread news and trends rapidly. But it also invites a backlash and a public examination of a brand’s real motivation that could undermine years of careful brand building work.
The deep tradition of philanthropy
Business concern for the common good has a long history. In the 19th century it was called philanthropy. Entrepreneurs such as Carnegie or Tate or Lever (of Unilever) committed their fortunes to programmes such as libraries or art galleries. Bill Gates has invested a large part of his massive fortune to help reduce diseases in Africa. Yet, these philanthropic acts had no expectation of a return – not in this life anyway. Note that it is The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, not The Microsoft Foundation. HPB occupies a more morally ambiguous zone from the purer intentions of philanthropy. Brands want us to reward their generosity with our custom and this underlying commercial motivation brings risks. Campaigning on a hot societal issue garners free publicity for a brand, especially with the power of social networks to spread news and trends rapidly. But it also invites a backlash and a public examination of a brand’s real motivation that could undermine years of careful brand building work. The social media beast is uncontrollable – once unleashed a brand needs to be prepared to live with the consequences.
All of which brings us back to Dove – their latest iteration of ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is a partnership with Twitter called #SpeakBeautiful. Noting that women tend to tweet negatively about body image, the brand decided to intervene and change the conversation to a more positive note with tweets from the brand. Dove’s campaign has not for once been universally acclaimed.
Here is The Washington Post’s response: “Look at it this way: Dove, the consumer brand, is owned by the monster multinational Unilever. Corporations like Unilever were once distant, capitalist entities, enticing customers through sales and contests and free things. But now corporations, unfulfilled by the passive, nonreciprocal loose ties of internet friendship, want to be something more authoritative. Say, the friend you turn to with your problems. Your benign guardian.”
Clearly HPB is more art than science and requires a highly attuned ability to judge the public mood – much like a politician in fact. As more and more brands talk about their societal and environmental mission in public, they can expect more critical attention. Are they living up to their promises? That is a good thing and it is the mechanism by which HPB will improve society and not just profits.
Alex Bogusky has a hopeful vision for how this might turn out: “I would say that in 10 years the best brands won’t be those with the best stories, sort of made-up fictional stories, but those that will give an accurate and real time picture of what they are doing in the interests of the consumer, in real time.”
I for one hope he is right.
Julian Saunders works for Google as a freelance strategist and teaches through The Joined Up Company. email@example.com