The power of purpose

(Photo courtesy DonkeyHotey via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy DonkeyHotey via Flickr)

Best of 2014: How brands will help lead the movement to social good

Purpose-based marketing has become my passion. It’s what I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about at the moment — creating democratic movements for social good. It is indicative of a larger shift, a shift to an era where deep questions about society and our ways of life are creating a new role for communication. And this doesn’t just mean non-profits and organizations with a focus on doing good. It relates to all brands, whatever their core business. Over my career I have seen several inflection points like this, around big topics that ultimately change our industry, like technology and new media. This is another inflection point.

It is time for communication to help democratize the messages relating to our changing ways of life — the environment, education, privacy, gender equality, health. This will require brands to take societal roles. To create tools, products, points of view that unify humanity’s ability to continue to move forward. We are also entering a time when purpose based marketing and companies will overtake the "slow to change," offering new forms of audience connection we can’t get from purely old-fashioned, consumerist models. I believe we will see significant shifts in the DNA of brand-building. "Eco" and "sustainability" reports will just be business reports. These kinds of issues will increasingly become C-level topics, not relegated to a lower-regarded "corporate responsibility department." Being responsible citizens of the world, to the planet, must become an integral part of brand behavior, a way of doing business. 

We need to find a new language for our businesses and brands. To create democratic invitations, connect product choices to their social-impact stories, make "impact" a value of the brand. Audiences will help drive this. We, and the brands we work with, will have to innovate — ideas, mediums and storytelling — to exist in a world where social impact will matter more than we can ever imagine today. 

Take the environment as an example and the conversations that have been had to date around preserving it. Growing up as a surfer and an animal lover, I’ve always had a strong feeling that as a human being, I am linked to nature. But when I look at the conservation space as a marketer, I rarely see a level of human truth that is as basic and simple as that.

Instead it seems confusing; fear based; and worse — politicized. I see arguments on climate change, its definitions, debates on what’s causing it what animal species are at most risk ... and yet it seems the most honest, universal truth is missing from this current narrative. We need a message that reminds us all that we have much more in common than that which divides us.

It can't be about us versus them anymore. Nature doesn’t care who you vote for. It shouldn’t matter if you are an American, a Canadian, or a Papa New Guinean. You don’t have to be particularly fond of the ocean or have a soft spot for elephants. It is simply about all of us coming together to do what needs to be done. The truth is, we need to act to keep nature healthy. And if we don’t Nature will go on without us.

That’s the message of a campaign I worked on recently with Conservation International, a group dedicated to saving this planet. Typically, we hear things like "save the planet" and we get this sense that we should be helping save the trees, the polar bears, the spotted owls, like a grand favor to the weaker species. But that has it backwards. It’s actually ourselves we are saving when we help preserve nature. So we turned the conventional message on its head. We thought the idea of giving Nature a voice (Nature having been around billions of years longer than humans) might make it clear to all of us that it’s time to listen — the planet will evolve with or without humans. It’s our choice. Nature doesn't need people. People need nature. 

I believe we need to lift the cultural conversation to a new place. A human place. A democratized place. That’s what we are trying to do now. Things are changing fast. Our industry and brands must evolve. I see it as an opportunity for us, not a reaction. It is Disruption in its purest form.

Lee Clow is the Chairman of TBWA\Media Arts Lab and Director of Media Arts at TBWA\Worldwide where he’s been making this thing called advertising for over 40 years. His latest work, a collaboration with Conservation International, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Robert Redford, Penelope Cruz, Kevin Spacey and Edward Norton, can be seen at

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