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Cause- Vs. Purpose-Driven Brands

November 19, 2018

nike-pub-kaepernickIt’s important for any business to share the values of its market. Oh sure, you can be a vegetarian and run a butcher shop at the same time. But you’re not likely to have much business success. The butcher who can provide customers with personal knowledge about various cuts of meat will win out. But even if you do share your market’s values, it’s not always easy to communicate that. How do you let your market know you stand with them and deserve to be a part of their lives? One answer is to take a public stand that your customers will admire. The classic example is Patagonia taking a leading role in ambitious conservation efforts. And, recently, Nike gave us a spectacular example with its ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernik. With it, Nike demonstrated an alignment with a younger, more diverse, more inclusive western world. A world that just happens to buy a lot of athletic shoes, by the way. Many people are calling the businesses that employ this tactic “purpose-driven” brands. I feel that by using this description we are injecting needless confusion into the larger discussion of what branding is – and what it is for.

Long-time Brandtalk readers know that a brand’s purpose – its true purpose – is defined by its market. When people have a want of some kind, they reach for the tools they need to satisfy that want. If someone wants a hole, they go buy a drill. If someone needs a dispute resolved, they retain a litigator. The market dictates that drills are for making holes and litigators are for resolving disputes. That is what they are for. That is their purpose. From a hard-nosed business point of view, that is what the drill maker and litigator should be reiterating in their marketing communications.

To the extent that the drill maker and litigator can refine their purposes, they can differentiate from their competition. That is, perhaps the drill maker specializes in dentist’s drills. Perhaps the litigator specializes in family law. From there, they can search for even more points of differentiation. They can differentiate themselves from competing dentist drills or family law attorneys. But they should never forget that their purpose remains defined by their market; and it will always be so. And they must reflect their understanding of that in all their marketing efforts.

There are a variety of ways to demonstrate shared values with the market. For instance, Snuggle fabric softener runs ads that depict clean, happy, financially secure families. These are images that are attractive aspirations to Snuggle’s target market, engendering a valuable emotional bond. Hey, I want a clean, happy, financially secure family too! We must share the same values. This bond facilitates sales of Snuggle.

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Another way is to completely change a successful business model. For instance, Sea World eliminated their killer whale spectacle in order to match the changing values of its customer base. It’s an incredibly risky move and one that may threaten their very viability as a going concern. The jury is still out. But they’ve certainly let their market know that they hear and share its concerns.

But, while most businesses are nowhere near having to take measures as drastic as Sea World did, they nevertheless feel that merely running an ad that depicts desirable imagery, as Snuggle does, is not enough. These companies, like Patagonia, like Nike, are taking political stands on topical issues. In so doing they align themselves with the values of their best customers. This only serves to strengthen the bonds they share with their markets. That, in turn, drives demand and revenue. Nothing wrong with this as long as the companies have an authentic connection to their chosen causes. Both Patagonia and Nike do.

The tactic backfires, however, when that connection is missing. Last year Pepsi ran an ad featuring a well-known young woman and popular influencer taking part in a fictitious demonstration while enjoying her Pepsi. The ad ends with the woman giving a Pepsi to a policeman in an effort to signify unity. The ad was clearly playing off the Black Lives Matter movement which was very visible at the time. Neither Pepsi nor their spokesmodel have any connection to the movement. They certainly have no personal experience with the controversy that sparked it. The ad was viewed as a crass attempt to exploit a grass-roots response to a painful American reality. It elicited howls of derision across the nation and had to be quickly pulled off the air.

So, as long as a genuine connection to the chosen issue exists, the market will accept that the business has a legitimate voice in the matter. Consumers will want – will expect – to hear what the business has to say about it. Then, let the chips fall where they may. The corporate position will either draw customers to it or repel them. And, by the way, studies have shown that, more and more, consumers trust brands to be more effective at tackling thorny social issues than they trust governments. After all, brands can be much more speedy and agile. Democratic governments take eons to move the needle just a little bit.

I only ask that we don’t call this “purpose-driven”. Patagonia’s purpose is not to save the environment. Patagonia’s purpose is still defined by its market, not by its marketing department. When companies adopt a cause to create a closer bond to its market, no matter how authentically they do it, it should be called “cause-driven” marketing, or something close to that. Businesses can remind their markets of their causes whenever they feel the need. But their purposes should always be reflected in every piece of marketing communications, without fail.

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