Too Many Companies Are Faking Brand Purpose


Showcasing “brand purpose” is a necessity for any company that targets young consumers.

How often have you heard that?

As the purchasing power of millennials and Generation Z grows, it feels as if every brand is trying to jump on a social or political cause. It’s like “brand purpose” is the hot new trend that all marketing’s cool kids are exploring.

And why not?

We know that these younger generations go out of their way to buy from and engage with companies that share their personal values. Indeed, brands willing to take a risk and stand up for “what’s right,” even if their profits could take a hit, are usually applauded on social media.

As I wrote earlier,Opens a new window  ‘belief-driven buying’ is at an all-time high. According to a 2018 report from communications marketing firm Edelman, a business’s social or political position significantly influences the purchasing decisions of 64% of global consumers, while two-thirds agree that brands should take stands on such issues.

That demand from consumers has real-world impact. A Havas studyOpens a new window found the stock of “meaningful brands” — those that tangibly improve peoples’ lives and have a positive impact on society — on average performed twice as well as stock indices.

In other words, doing good is good for business. Companies that can prove they care about social responsibility buy themselves goodwill from the public…and improve their bottom line.

The issue now, however, is that everybody is trying to cash in on this trend.

Talking the talk

As marketers look for ways to make their campaigns stand out, many are turning to socially responsible marketingOpens a new window , highlighting their company’s brand purpose by aligning it to positive, if sometimes controversial, social and political causes and movements.

The problem with this trend, as DoSomething Strategic documented in a study earlier this yearOpens a new window , is that too many brands are now using purpose as an ad gimmick.

The social impact consultancy’s research revealed that young people aren’t as receptive as many marketers thought to cause-, purpose- and value-based marketing. And that’s because there’s a big difference between saying you care about something and taking actual steps to enact change.

As Meredith Ferguson, managing director of DoSomething Strategic, says, “young consumers today don’t just want to see brands take a stand on social issues; they want them to act on that stand — from the inside out.”

Ferguson points to brands such as Lush, The Body Shop, Patagonia, United By Blue and Toms as leaders in the cause-marketing space because they do far more than simply raise awareness or write a check. Rather, she states, “they’re inviting their consumers and employees to be a part of the social impact action.”

Too many marketers are happy to appropriate important social causes and movementsOpens a new window for their campaigns, even if the company doesn’t actually embody that same purpose.

Gillette, for instance, found itself in a tough position after it launched an ad campaign denouncing ‘toxic masculinity’ and championing gender equality. As Jeff Beer wrote for Fast CompanyOpens a new window , many consumers were quick to point out the company’s hypocrisy: “While in a cultural vacuum the sentiment was nice, too many people quickly saw the hypocrisy and contradictions between that message and the brand’s own products and past promotions–from ‘pink tax’ razors to using scantily-clad girls in event marketing, to continuing to advertise on Tucker Carlson’s TV show.”

Walking the walk

Ferguson notes that “the biggest mistake brands make is limiting their support of a cause platform to simply advertising. Rather, they need to show that they’re truly invested in the cause platform they’re supporting.”

Unfortunately, this can be a hard sell to company decision-makers. “With increasing business pressures, putting mission over other priorities might not be an easy concept for business leaders to grasp, especially since it could mean taking a short-term loss in favor of a long-term gain,” notes Randi Stipes, CMO at IBM Watson Media and Weather.

Marketers, though, are in a unique position to make that case. Stipes explains that as stewards of our brands, the best thing we can do is “first and foremost listen to [our] customers. Then, internally showcase [our] wins and use data to demonstrate that purpose can indeed help achieve business goals.”

We must identify a cause that not only aligns with, but is embedded in, our company’s DNA. As Ferguson advises, “that starts by putting [the company’s] attention, energy, and resources on first addressing issues from within.”