Why brand purpose is everything

A scene from Unilever's Dirt Is Good campaign.
A scene from Unilever's Dirt Is Good campaign.

The founder of UK digital agency Animl shares insights from his recent TED Talk about why brands should take on social causes

Humans love to change the world — to mold and shape our environment and to impose our will upon our surroundings. That is both our strongest suit and our greatest flaw. It should concern us greatly, then, if the problems faced by future generations are going to go well beyond their control.

With global challenges around the corner, how can we be smarter about the choices we make now? In particular, how can we better equip our children to deal with an uncertain future? With some corporations growing more powerful than governments, it seems reasonable to suggest that they should play an expanding role in helping us to deal with these problems.

It’s time for corporations to step up and take responsibility to match their influence. Many companies have social responsibility campaigns that are significant in scope and serious in intent, each backed up by millions of dollars annually. In the case of Microsoft, for instance, this is an impressive $904 million.

Corporate mantra

Money is a good start, but it’s also important that we foster a culture in which corporations see these initiatives as essential rather than as add-ons that might improve their image. This is especially true considering that corporations exert their power with no governmental legitimacy, being neither elected nor appointed by elected office.

What over-arching philosophy could corporations adopt to this end? What mantra could guide them in working to mitigate the challenges waiting for our children? I've recently returned from giving a TED talk in New York on behalf of Unilever's Dirt is Good campaign about some of the challenges our children face in the 21st century — Unilever being another company with a growing public commitment to social responsibility. While I was there, hearing about an amazing and diverse range of purposeful initiatives to improve our lot here on Planet Earth, the thought struck me hard and clearly: What if more companies focused on purpose rather than persuasion?

If brands refocused their efforts on putting things out into the world that had genuine purpose, rather then merely trying to persuade its market to act in a certain way, would this help to promote the kinds of behavior we will all need to solve complex social problems — without damaging their bottom line? I believe so.

The creative agency I founded, Animl, worked with Unilever on the Kids Today Project, a digital content project which looks at the world from a child's point of view to show how childhood is changing in the 21st century. It comprises six made-for-digital films, in-depth website content and a social-media campaign designed to stimulate debate on whether today's children are getting what they need to become happy and successful adults.

Focusing on what matters

Unilever didn't simply try to convince mothers of the superiority of its product but instead engaged on issues that are important to its audience. The social-media campaign was a particular success. With the brand holding a dialogue with moms on a topic of mutual concern, genuine progress was seen and insights made on both sides. Our engagement metrics clearly show that people are more than willing to listen to brands so long as brands are willing to talk about something that they value.

Simply put, I've been amazed by the results. With brand metrics for the project overwhelmingly positive, it's a good indication that a brand emphasising purpose in its campaigning isn't just a good thing to do — it works as a sales tactic as well.

Companies have for some time now considered corporate social responsibility as a necessary part of their operation, if only because the public demands it, and this kind of broad consensus is a good thing.  But it’s time for corporate responsibility to evolve further. Being socially responsibly shouldn't be thought of as an obligation, or a means to an end. Nor should it be seen as benefactors reaching down to help beneficiaries, usually through donation. Working with purpose simply means contributing to issues that really matter to your audience. And that should be seen as an essential component of success, and the core of any successful brand.

If companies put more emphasis on putting good things out into the world, working hard to cultivate a philosophy of social purpose over superficial persuasion, then not only will it improve their bottom line, it could also help improve our children's chances of dealing with the problems they're going to face in the future.

This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.


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