The rise of the internet and social media platforms have given consumers a voice, like never before in history, to express their opinions, preferences and expectations towards the world in which they live.
In some cases, this podium has had an incredible effect, especially in regard to bringing latent issues to the forefront of societal consciousness – the Black Lives Matter campaign in America is a great example of how social media platforms have been utilised to bring issues to light and mobilise masses towards the pursuit of a resolution.
However, on the flip side of this coin, it has created a conundrum for companies and brands who operate in this new consumer power paradigm, because their very survival hinges on the opinion and actions of a public that is often deeper and wider than their specified target markets.
Take the recent Facebook advertisers revolt for example. Over 400 of the world’s largest and most powerful brands including Coca Cola, Adidas, Ford and Lego, to name a few, have jumped on the bandwagon to support a cause advocated by a civil rights group, and seeded via the hashtag #stophateforprofit.
While it can be admired that these brands have thrown their collective weight behind the issue of hate speech on the most influential social platform globally, it brings into question the concept of purpose-based marketing, and whether the social issue of hate speech is one that is part of the DNA of the brands that are backing the cause, or whether their participation is just good for their immediate sales and profit motives.
This is an important distinction because it implies that there are two perspectives of purpose currently in the mainstream consciousness of companies:
1. The strategic drive to align with a cause or movement as and when it is convenient or beneficial to do so.
2. The act of pursuing a guiding principal greater than the product or service that the company provides, in order to make a tangible and lasting difference in the world.
To contrast against the Facebook advertiser’s perspective identified above, let’s look at two brands – Pattagonia Inc. and Outer Known – that do things a little differently.
Patagonia, Inc. is an American clothing company that is built around social activism. The brand was established when the founder Yvon Chouinard, a mountain climbing enthusiast, started creating climbing gear that didn’t damage the rock face in the same way that the gear he bought did.
This ambition to look after the environment became the driving force and ethos of the business that today is committed to teaching and training the next generation of environmental activists, while simultaneously being ethical and sustainable in its approach to product creation.
Similarly, Outer Known is a clothing brand founded by world famous surfer, Kelly Slater. The brand’s core value and guiding principal is sustainability of the ocean and, as such, actively goes out and cleans the beaches and oceans of plastic waste, and then utilises the recycled material to create the clothing products sold by the brand. This finances more clean up initiatives, generating profits for shareholders, and driving advocacy from like-minded consumers.
These two examples demonstrate what it is to have a brand purpose, and how this purpose permeates every aspect of the business, from executive decision-making to sales channel selection and post-sale responsibility.
In addition, they illustrate a core aspect to purpose-based companies: that purpose is not wallpaper or a short-term solution to sales. Purpose is a rationale for existing, sales and profits are a byproduct of pursuing purpose effectively.
The reason that purpose is so vital for companies in today’s societal environment is that consumer consciousness is rising, Gen Z has arrived, and Cancel Culture is the new ‘thing’. Today’s markets no longer support companies or brands that are seen to have detrimental practices towards consumers, communities, the ecological environment, or that just view consumers as a resource to be exploited for profit.
In the above vein, the triple bottom line perspective is an emergent actionable business framework that champions a focus on social and environmental concerns alongside the pursuit of profit. Within this agenda, companies shift their thinking to towards outcomes for people and the planet, and the pursuit of these then facilitates the generation of profit.
However, the underlying prerequisite for truly unlocking the value of the triple bottom line perspective remains ‘purpose’. It is purpose that enables companies to reframe industry boundaries and open blue oceans in highly contested markets. It is purpose that allows questions to be asked differently from competitors, and arrive at unique solutions to common problems, and it is purpose that delivers competitive advantage by carving out niches which are difficult to replicate.
A case study from South Africa illustrates the importance of purpose in guiding business strategy. Insurance company, Discovery, launched a banking offering in 2018 that positions it in a different niche to competitors. Discovery Bank’s purpose proposition is centred around rewarding positive banking behaviour change with market-leading incentives and dynamic interest rates that change as clients increasingly manage their money well.
In summation, purpose is not about aligning to the fleeting trends of public opinion to make short-term sales. It is about giving your brand a long-term mission to accomplish and then becoming the mechanism that consumers choose to align themselves with.
That is how you build longevity into business, that is how you compete effectively in current markets, and that is how you justify your existence to the ever-increasing skepticism of public opinion.
MetropolitanRepublic is an innovative integrated communications agency that has championed purpose for a long time. Three of their top thinkers – Kamogelo Sesing, Dylan Fortune and Paul Warner – weigh in on the debate.
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