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Brands Can Have Existential Crises, Too

Purpose-Driven

The saying goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and in the current landscape, brands are finding themselves held to the same convention. Purpose-driven marketing has saturated the marketplace in recent months, with brands as diverse as Audi and Pepsi aligning their products with a mission or a cause, to varying degrees of success.

As consumers have become more vocal about their values and activism, brands recognize the opportunity to better bond with their targets. Identifying and aligning with causes important to their audiences not only helps to dimensionalize a brand, but creates emotional connections. When Audi used its Super Bowl spend on the issue of equal pay for equal work, it demonstrated an understanding of their target’s closely-held ideals.

As always, authenticity is key. Savvy consumers see through a half-baked attempt to jump on the purpose-driven bandwagon. Consider Pepsi’s protest spot, which featured model Kendall Jenner abruptly leaving a photoshoot to join a passing protest, before uniting cops and protesters with a can of Pepsi. It carried a muddled and confusing message, and to many, trivialized social and political demonstrations. The lesson is to ensure the connection between the brand and the mission not only makes sense, but feels genuine.

With 91% of Millennials saying they would switch to a brand associated with a cause, it’s clear that space to demonstrate purpose will quickly become crowded.[1] Companies aligning with a community’s values, however, should be prepared to fully make a commitment to this new way of thinking. The more visible the alignment, the greater the expectation that they live and operate according to those values. These brands will no longer be able to stay silent on an issue related to its purpose, lest their socially-driven consumers see that silence as a position.

The companies that will win in this space will be those willing to not only demonstrate care of issues, but to stand for values that may alienate a segment or cause interruptions in growth. Audi did this by building their Super Bowl creative around the issue of gender pay gap. CVS dropped tobacco sales from their stores, Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees, and Target announced an inclusive transgender bathroom policy.

Each of the companies mentioned received varying response in their purpose stances: Target’s was most visible, with a boycott called for by a conservative organization. While Target’s same-store sales decreased during that period (which the company said was unrelated to the announcement), they received wide-spread acclaim from human rights organizations, which landed them on multiple “best places to work” lists. The reward is trading an identity with semi-universal appeal for one that connects more readily to a narrower, but higher-indexing target with greater loyalty.

We’re close to a world where consumers will make purchase choices not based on lifestyle aspirations, but on their worldview and belief system. Aligning with a brand will feel like a form of self-expression, with products serving as a physical representation of the values by which consumers define themselves. Brands will need to evaluate not only their own beliefs, but those of their target, and then decide if branching into the purpose-driven world is worth the risk. Our prediction? In the coming months, more and more brands will decide that the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

[1] http://www.conecomm.com/news-blog/new-cone-communications-research-confirms-millennials-as-americas-most-ardent-csr-supporters

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