With the rise of Millennial consumers has come a new wave in marketing strategy focused on engaging customers’ values instead of emotions. Big brands now differentiate themselves with purpose-driven campaigns that address where their company stands on social or cultural issues. Edelman Public Relations started studying this trend nearly 10 years ago, in more recent years with their Earned Brand Global Report, and have helped dozens of clients navigate how to appeal to belief-driven buyers with an authentic voice.
Marketing News spoke with David Armano, the global strategy director at Edelman, about what purpose-driven branding and marketing looks like in practice.
Q: Should marketers push their brands to aspire to ‘higher purpose’? Couldn’t this be considered an internal conversation or at best a marketing tactic reserved for large, global brands?
A: Edelman’s yearly Earned Brand Global report shows a steady build in belief-driven buying since the first report published in 2017. Now, 64 percent of consumers—across generations and geographies—expect businesses to take initiative on social issues and will choose brands based on their values. Those are numbers that no business can ignore.
We’re seeing a decline in trust in traditional financial and government institutions as well as the media, and people are looking for trust from the non-traditional places. That includes companies and brands. Consumers expect values to be part of the company model. What used to be an internal mission statement is now just the modern way to build your brand. It’s mandatory from the perspective of promote and protect. You leave yourself vulnerable if you don’t demonstrate your values. It’s no different for smaller businesses or B2B: who you put in your orbit can reflect positively or poorly on your brand.
Q: You’ve been conducting a consumer survey on trust and values for over a decade. What motivated Edelman to start this survey?
A: When we first started doing this study, we were taking note of Millennial values. We suspected their attitudes about brands were different. They ask whether a company’s values line up with theirs before buying. We didn’t think we’d see that behavior with other groups.
I think we started seeing tipping point with 2016 election, and polarization really put a fine point to the trust and values issues. Polarization is part of a much larger issue, but we’re seeing brands’ values really affect consumer behavior a lot more now. In simple terms, people want to know there’s something motivating the business besides just making money.
Q: If a brand wants to develop a belief/purpose to stand by, where should they start?
A: A lot of companies have the raw materials in place. They know inherently what they stand for, they just haven’t invested in telling that story or are not supporting it with the right actions.
The first step is making sure that your internal ‘why’ is up to date. A lot of those mission statements go untouched for decades. Edelman has a formalized platform to help clients navigate this, and we build a purpose marketing strategy around “What’s getting in the way of your why?”. We come up with the company’s unique intersection between brand/societal truth and tension, the foundation of what we call a Cultural Purpose Platform to guide company communications and actions.
A great example is our client GoGo squeeZ. You could tell they were really passionate about the well-being of kids. But they weren’t leading their marketing with that. They were leading with messages about nutrition. That’s important, but it’s not a differentiator. Touting the changes that they were making for the well-being of kids and families was getting lost. That’s not uncommon for brands. How companies articulate what they stand for has become a means to evolve your brand from a competitive standpoint. If you can get this done properly it can become a differentiator.
Q: Who are the best brands doing purpose-driven marketing?
A: Patagonia is held up as a model. Nike’s recent campaign with Colin Kaepernick got a lot of attention. But I think Dove’s campaign for real beauty sets the bar in a more accessible way for other brands.
The campaign started nearly 20 years ago as a regional issue and got such a powerful response that it became what the Dove stood for. Dove has had so many activations in the form of social experiment videos and other actions all under this campaign. What they’ve done and continue to do paves the way for brands. It’s consistent and built up some powerful insights about key issues for women that go beyond beauty.
Q: What’s the biggest pitfall in developing a brand purpose? Can it look like you’re co-opting social causes to sell your product?
Yes, it can, and absolutely don’t co-opt cultural issues. You have to look internally first. It’s tempting for brands to attach themselves to the wrong issue in the pursuit of relevance. Brands that succeed in this space will build on what’s true in their DNA and apply that to how consumers experience them.
Some work we did with Kellogg’s was a good example of addressing a social cause the right way. Rice Krispies packaging for years has had a blank space where a parent can write a love note and put it in their kids’ lunch pack. We worked with Kellogg’s to come up with brail versions of that. We wanted to expand that element because the brand is about nourishing families. An example of someone who really got it wrong was the Fearless Girl statue. Most people didn’t even know who commissioned it, and when they found out, the company got criticized for not having enough women executives.
Q: In a recent article with CMO, you say this is a long-term, core development. But if we’re reacting to societal issues, those change. How often should brands re-examine?
Societal issues change, but values shouldn’t. That’s how brands should come at it. They should look at what’s always been true for them and add that societal filter. They have to reframe their corporate values in a way that can be acted upon in their organization and understand how it affects the consumer experience. When you have a clear value set, that will drive you.
It doesn’t need to be taking on a hot issue. It shouldn’t be that. Purpose-driven marketing transcends campaigns. It transcends traditional brand-building. It’s not something marketers should do once, for a quick win, or to make themselves seem more relevant to the consumers they know are thinking about this stuff.