Is purpose the new cool again?

Whether you agree or not, social purpose is back on the agenda and in a big way, argues the Firefish group chief executive.

Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock recently wrote a letter to company CEOs warning them that if they aren’t doing good in the world, they aren’t doing business. "Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose," he wrote. "Every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society."

And when 20% of the ads shown during some of the world’s most expensive TV ad slots, the Super Bowl, have creative based on purpose (up from 6% the previous year), you can see that companies are waking up to the fact that purpose is not only a driver of employee and customer engagement, but can have a real commercial imperative.

Given that just a few years back brands were standing accused of greenwashing and facing probing questions about the legitimacy of their socially-driven campaigns, this could be seen as quite an about-turn. But social purpose never went away, it has merely evolved.

At Firefish, we spend our lives talking to people, listening to them, observing cultural trends and we hear loud and clear that the desire for brands and companies to have a positive effect on the world is stronger than ever.  

A bit bored

People previously got a bit bored of purpose-led communications, but only because we didn’t believe them. On the whole, brands and companies are now well aware that if you are going to make worthy, lofty claims, you’d better walk the walk as well as talk the talk, otherwise you will be found out fast, and it won’t be pretty.

So is it worth the risk? Yes it is – and for more reasons than the immediate. The obvious benefit is in building deeper relationships and empathy with your audience; we have heard time and time again how in times of change, uncertainty, disempowerment, people are looking for help to have a positive impact on the world – we hear it so much because it is true.  But the power of purpose runs deeper. As it becomes harder to recruit, retain and motivate the brightest and the best to the marcomms sector (because everyone wants to work for Google), companies with a strong purpose have an added appeal.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink shows how purpose, connecting to a cause larger than yourself, drives the deepest motivation. I see that regularly working with people at Unilever and others like the Tommy Hilfiger adaptive team. And a third benefit, the brightest and best at your partner agencies all want to work on social purpose briefs.  Certainly at Firefish it is noticeable how much people love this work (though there was also pretty high enthusiasm when a possible ethnographic project exploring private jet use came in; a reminder that it’s not just the worthy that excites!)

Do you want your company and brand to stand for something; do you want to use your platform to make a little difference in the world?

At its simplest, brand purpose is an articulation of why the brand exists (beyond selling stuff); that doesn’t always mean we have to save the world.  Knowing the benefits and the risks, ultimately it becomes a choice. Do you want your company and brand to stand for something; do you want to use your platform to make a little difference in the world?

Unilever makes that choice on every brand – building on its deep purpose led heritage (its founding principle was "to make cleanliness commonplace") and driven on by the inspirational leadership of Paul Polman; Bodyform made that choice with its #bloodnormal campaign; Diageo makes that choice with brands such as Guinness using its influence to stimulate conversations about gang violence, poverty of disability with its Made of More campaign.  Further afield, in Mexico, Tecate takes on domestic violence, in the US Tommy Hilfiger builds on its core purpose of "fashion for everyone" to launch a fashion range for the differently abled.

Putting it into action

So how do you do it? The best social purpose initiatives and campaigns start by combining insight from three main areas: deep, immutable human truths (always at the heart of great brands and communication but enjoying a bit of a moment back in the sun), cultural insight (often focusing on tensions or shifts), and insight around the core values and history of the brand.

So, taking an underlying human truth around the need for identity and self-esteem, combining it with cultural insight around the changing face of masculinity, Lynx has finally broken free of its dated expression of the male ideal (and caught up with the great work Dove has been doing for years) and aims to empower men to break free of bullshit masculine stereotypes, and be the most attractive person they can be – themselves - as brought to life in their #isitokforguys? campaign and their partnership with people like CALM and Ditch the label.

Starting from a similar place, but in a different cultural context, Tecate beer in Mexico took a powerful stand against gender violence and macho culture with a hugely commercially successful campaign around the idea "if you don’t respect women you are not a man, you are not one of us – and we don’t want you to buy our beer".

As Gen Z come to the fore, the generation often characterised as wanting to change the world, starting by fixing things themselves, purpose may need to change again

So, what is the future of purpose?  It will need to keep evolving, making sure it engages, has total credibility, and is integrated into the long term vision of the brand.  The most developed sector currently seems to be FMCG brands, other sectors (finance, tech, media – if I was Google, Facebook, Uber etc. I would be looking very hard at this) will need to catch up.  

The type of purpose will continue to evolve – as it has done in the past, from environmental purpose being the core (remember when planting trees was the height of brands "doing good"?!), through the evolving nature of social purpose to other areas yet to fully emerge (human vs machine?, nationalism vs globalism?, urban vs rural?).  Businesses will need to work out how to develop long term meaningful purposes, as well as being able to deal with the seemingly sudden emergence of specific focus – i.e. the recent demonisation of plastic.

They will need to overcome the inherent cynicism in many cultures (this is particularly prevalent in the UK where "contempt prior to investigation" often seems to be the norm) and deal with this by realising it is the job of brands and businesses to rebuild the trust of their audience.  And as Gen Z come to the fore, the generation often characterised as wanting to change the world, starting by fixing things themselves, purpose may need to change again, perhaps to empower them to deliver the change.

The ultimate fact remains: we want our brands and businesses to do good.  Edelman’s global trust barometer showed a "fast recovering belief in CEOs rewarded for speaking out on issues". According to the report: "Business and NGOs are viewed equally as the institutions holding out the most hope for our respondents." But it all starts with making a choice.

Jem Fawcus is the chief executive and owner of insight agency Firefish

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