Purpose-driven marketing: when brands highlight their social responsibility

Purpose-driven marketing: when brands highlight their social responsibility

Sarah Cantavalle Published on 7/17/2023

The concept of purpose-driven marketing is very much in vogue these days. But what exactly does this mean and why is it so important ?

When applied to the world of business, the word “purpose” means the set of values and ideas that define an organisation. While a company’s vision describes where it’s heading and its mission sets out how the company will get there, its purpose answers the following questions: How is the company working to improve people’s everyday lives? What type of society does it want to help create? What are the values it believes in and strives to uphold?

Purpose should not therefore be understood as a utopian ideal to boast about in brand storytelling or a simple declaration of intent, but the positive change an organisation wants to affect in the world around it. By adopting marketing strategies aimed at achieving a social or environmental goal, brands demonstrate their concrete commitment to the community and create a new dialogue with the public based on values that consumers share.

Purpose, vision, mission. Source: Content Marketing Institute

It’s obvious that purpose-driven marketing is about more than a single advertising campaign, but rather setting out a long-term strategy that’s in keeping with the firm’s values. It should form part of a purpose-driven strategy, which involves all company functions and departments. Companies that adopt such an approach show that they are committed to promoting good causes both inside and outside the organisation and can reconcile the profit motive with the ethical principles they believe in.

As Paolo Iabichino, copywriter and founder of Osservatorio Civic Brands, explained in an article published on Medium a few years ago, purpose should not be seen as a simple marketing action to gain easy approval. Rather, it should be the starting point for creating a new business model and language that is credible, consistent with a brand’s culture and relevant for its target audience.

Why has communicating purpose become vital?

As we saw in the article “Love brands: what they teach us”, an organisation’s commitment to economic, social, and environmental sustainability plays a fundamental role in building trust with the public and strengthening a brand’s credibility. One global study conducted by advertising agency Zeno in 2020 showed how consumers were four to six times more likely to trust and buy from brands that show they have a well-defined purpose. Furthermore, while 94% of consumers interviewed claim to like and remain loyal to organisations that are purposeful, only 37% believe that today’s companies have strong and clear ethical goals.

This data tells us that a weak purpose or no communication strategy for it can have a negative impact not just on sales, but on the very existence of an organisation. The pandemic, economic crises, political instability and growing inequality have made this more important than ever. According to research conducted by Ipsos and the Osservatorio Civic Brands in Italy in 2020, 63% of interviewees believe it is right for companies to express their opinion on major social issues. The increase in this segment of socially conscious consumers compared to 2019 shows us how growing numbers of people expect companies to make a concrete contribution to improving the society and environment in which we live.

Ipsos research insights

To recap, purpose is essential because it:

  1. Helps brands stand out from competitors, adding value to the company’s products or services
  2. Enables brands to forge a deep connection with customers, based on shared values and common causes
  3. Allows companies to burnish their reputation and to create a loyal customer base through long-term relationships built on trust
  4. Gives a clear direction to the company, generating a positive impact both on the outside world and on employee motivation and loyalty.

Two examples of purpose-driven brands (and campaigns)

Nike is the perfect example of a purposeful brand: it stands against racism and campaigns in favour of ethnic minorities are legendary. The “Crazy Dreams” campaign, created to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “Just do it” slogan, was fronted by ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who, when the American national anthem was played at the start of American football games, would take the knee in protest against racial discrimination in the United States. Kaepernick’s gesture incurred the wrath of then-president Donald Trump and shortly afterwards Kaepernick was fired.

Crazy Dreams campaign

Nike’s campaign triggered strong reactions from the public: some expressed their solidarity with the brand, while others chose to boycott its products as a sign of loyalty to Trump. Despite an initial collapse in the company’s share price, “Crazy Dreams” generated a 31% increase in sales and added 6 billion dollars to the brand’s value, thus becoming the company’s most successful campaign ever. Over the years, Nike has shown itself to be faithful to its purpose and consistent with its values: as well as having spent millions of dollars supporting minorities, it has also undertaken to improve inclusivity and equality inside the company.

Italian coffee brand illycaffè has always put environmental, economic and social sustainability at the heart of its business. This has resulted in a more sustainable and transparent supply chain, and funding for various projects to support the community and environment. The integrated marketing campaign “Benvenuti sulla Via della Felicità”, launched in 2021 in Italy and worldwide across multiple channels (television, digital, print and out-of-home advertising), perfectly encapsulates the company’s approach and reflects the values on which business is founded.

The campaign takes viewers on the long journey from growing the coffee bean to drinking the beverage, highlighting three fundamental components along the way: product quality, environmental and social sustainability, and the relationship with art and culture. Through a circular representation of happiness, the brand conveys a very current cultural message: we can only truly be happy if others are happy too.

In all these examples, brands have placed purpose at the heart of their organisational culture, spanning everything from the supply chain to HR policy to marketing strategy. This is fundamental to prevent purpose becoming a boomerang: if the public believes this to be fake and bear little resemblance to reality, the reputation of the brand and the public’s trust in it will be damaged. Firms looking to adopt a purpose-driven strategy should ensure that they involve all company functions so as to turn the ethical principles it believes in into tangible value for employees and customers.