Cause vs. purpose: What's the difference?

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(Photo courtesy John Spooner via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy John Spooner via Flickr)

Best of Campaign 2014: People want brands to do good -- but in ways they can take an active role in supporting

Statistics and surveys make it clear that people want brands to do good in this world. According to the latest Cone/Echo Global Study, 93 percent of today’s shoppers would buy a product associated with a cause, and 65 percent have already purchased a cause-related product in the past 12 months.

Accordingly, marketers and the ad agencies that serve them are viewing "cause" as a massive opportunity to sell us more stuff. After all, many of us, myself included, find ourselves regularly paying just a bit more for brands that support our favorite charities. (Shopper marketers call this behavior "cause-to-close.")

And yet there is a palpable evolution of consumer and brand behavior away from cause and toward purpose instead. Lee Clow recently called this an inflection point for our industry in the pages and screens of this publication — "disruption in its purest form," he posited. The reason for this is simple: People are increasingly responding more to purpose than cause.

Cause marketing is, for the most part, against something. Purpose, on the other hand, tends to lean into support for something. Many brands are against environmental pollution, but Seventh Generation’s purpose is to help people live a more natural and chemical-free life. A major retailer may sponsor the Sierra Club’s efforts against deforestation; Patagonia makes saving the environment its corporate mission.

Cause marketing historically relies on corporate giving, whereas for many up-and-coming companies today, purpose lies at the heart of their entire business model. Business models centered on the "one-for-one" approach, like Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker, are finding immense success with younger buyers. And major brands are taking notice.

Take, for instance, a recent Target back-to-school campaign that Ad Age reported could be the single-largest donation the retailer has ever made — $25 million. For three weeks, Target will donate one product to the Kids In Need Foundation for every product sold. According to Ad Age, this is the first time the retailer has used cause marketing for a back-to-school promotion. As the article points out, the campaign was inspired by Yoobi, a new school-supplies brand exclusive to Target. Yoobi has a "One for You, One for Me" mission and also works with the Kids In Need Foundation.

In other words, Target is running a cause campaign. Yoobi is run by purpose.

The article continues to state that along with social media, Target’s cause campaign is supported with six TV spots and seven print ads for the back-to-school season. This is no small marketing budget, and along with the corporate donation to Kids In Need, Target is spending millions on the cause campaign.

Purpose is bigger than cause

Like the Target campaign, cause marketing tends to rely on "traditional" media to tell its story. Purpose-led campaigns, on the other hand, tend to use what I call "human-centric mediums" like social, digital and experiential. Optimizing these channels gets people to share, participate and act. And that’s exactly what you need people to do in order to understand a brand or company’s purpose.

Purpose-driven thinking is often the very soul of emerging brands and the day-to-day inspiration for their business behavior. (Warby Parker’s business model is "designed to make people happy.") For purpose-led brands and businesses, the cause is already "baked in." This is an important differentiator to cause marketing: the authenticity of the message. And that differentiator is exactly what people are searching for.

A recent study by Traction found that "people overwhelmingly prefer to support a brand with a cause attached. But those same people are often experiencing cause fatigue: 41 percent somewhat agree that cause marketing is "just spin," a similar number feel like everybody’s doing it, and fully a quarter are even starting to find cause marketing to be a bit annoying."

According to Traction CEO Adam Kleinberg, the reason lies in authenticity. "Consumers are skeptical of companies — especially big ones — using cause marketing to push products and green-wash brands," he says in an Ad Age article. "Supporting causes that are widespread and generic (breast cancer awareness, fair trade, etc.) may win the battle temporarily at the point of purchase — but won’t win long-term brand love in people’s hearts and minds."

Brands with purpose pass the authenticity test. Brands that support causes may not. Brands that fail to differentiate themselves with a unique and iconic purpose tend to fall into an inauthentic (or over-killed) approach to cause marketing. And therein lies the danger for massive social media backlash and cultural shaming.

How can agencies help?

According to Havas Media's Meaningful Brands Global Report, "only 28 percent of consumers worldwide think that companies today are working hard to solve the big social and environmental challenges people care about." The same report shows that 64 percent believe that most companies are only being responsible to improve their image, and that "57 percent of global consumers feel they can make a company behave more responsibly." (Emphasis mine.)

Perhaps that’s why big holding companies are forming agency groups targeting cause marketing. To fail at cause marketing may prove to be extremely damaging to brands. And as brands inexorably move from cause to purpose — driven primarily by their own audiences — agencies must be able to guide them through the process with iconic campaigns and innovative models for good.

These campaigns must be more than just donations to a cause. Rather, they must release the tension between people’s desire to see brands do more good in this world with their deep-seated skepticism about companies who say they do but don’t.

But even that may not be enough. To do purposeful work, agencies may need a purpose themselves. And more and more ad agencies are embracing a more purposeful approach to their work.

School, the agency I co-founded, is committed to advancing educational opportunities for kids in the developing world. Building schools with our partners at Pencils of Promise is part of the business plan. Our friends, agency mates and fellow Boulder-ites at Made Movement "make work that makes American jobs." A New York-based agency called Matter is "an integrated creative agency, dedicated exclusively to working with clients who are committed to improving the lives and wellbeing of those who depend on them and everyone they impact."

These are lofty goals for ad agencies. But why should lofty goals be reserved for the partners with whom we work? The best strategy and creative will be rooted in purpose, and the bigger the brands the bigger the challenges agencies should try to solve. The ad agency of the immediate future will be able to move their partners from cause to purpose because it will be purposeful itself.

Brands are made up of people responsible to people. Agencies are made up of people responsible to people. We are all in this together  —  people who work for brands, people who work at the agencies of brands, and people who prefer one brand over another and talk to other people about it. Great brands should be doing work that does good beyond supporting a cause. And so should their agencies.

Max Lenderman is CEO of School, a Boulder and San Francisco-based agency that specializes in human-centric mediums.

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