You can put a price on social purpose

Bill Hicks may have had a problem with it, but using social purpose to drive sales and loyalty is a positive step for both business and society, says Green Cave People's co-founder

With so many social purpose campaigns celebrated at this year’s Cannes Lions, it felt like a direct response to former president Bill Clinton’s impassioned plea three years earlier for the industry use its formidable powers of persuasion to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Ads that encouraged Americans swap unhealthy red meat for fish, and  helped London’s cyclists stay safe, were among award-winning campaigns showed that ethics was squarely on the agenda.

And yet numerous criticisms are levied at the "piggy-backing," "short-termism," "award-centricity" of our industry’s approach. Indeed the Indian Confederation of NGOs has run a campaign to highlight the fact that agencies "do good" in the three months leading up to Cannes, and — once they’ve won some awards — abandon the people they’ve helped until the following year. 

It’s an uncomfortable reproach that harks back to a memorable quote from another famous Bill: "If anyone here is in marketing or advertising, kill yourself. … You have no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan's little helpers. ... Borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy. ... Rid the world of your evil fuckin' presence."

But comedian Bill Hicks may have had a point back in the '90s when we told people cigars would make them happy; push-up bras would get you a boyfriend; and (if that failed) a flaky chocolate could help you climax by yourself anyway. But is this still a fair criticism 20-odd years on?

To quote Hicks: "Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!"

The reality is that profiting from making a positive social impact (yes, even financially) is important for business. The old CSR approach hasn’t really worked for anyone: It was half-hearted. It treated doing good as a charitable expense. It therefore delegated (actually, relegated) it to a CSR department in the wings or a separate foundation arm, away from the centre of the business. And that rendered its impact on social or environmental issues weak and inconsistent.

So when Unilever’s Keith Weed restated at Cannes last month that Unilever’s brands with social purpose are outperforming its others, it sends out a positive new message to marketing directors, CEOs and shareholders everywhere: Business has started to see social purpose as a commercial investment and to get a return from it. And that means a way more committed and systemized approach to it. Everyone wins.

Who cares if Dove’s ‘campaign for real beauty’ is ultimately motivated by dollars, if the outcome is a slightly better world?

Agencies haven’t got it right yet, but we can help business use the power of brands to be more of a force for good in the world if we advise them to stick to the usual rules of brand communication:

Be authentic because Kenco Coffee tackling youth gang wars is just daft.

Be committed because we know that helping a community and then taking that help away can irrevocably damage your brand. (Don’t we, Nestle?)

Be useful — or at least entertaining — because no one likes a preachy do-gooder who tries to chat about diversity and racial inequality with you via your coffee cup, as Starbucks quickly found out.

And above all, be commercial. Using social purpose to drive sales and loyalty is a positive step for business and society alike. And it’s something that should be celebrated. Brands aren't charities, after all.

Sorry, Bill.

Marc Cave is founding partner of Green Cave People.

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