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Four Strategies Define the Future of Purpose-Driven Branding

Four Strategies Define the Future of Purpose-Driven Branding

David Aaker

In 2003, Dove conducted a study that revealed fewer than 3% of women regarded themselves as beautiful. This led to the Real Beauty campaign, which involved a host of vehicles to change perceptions. One was the “Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” a short film that showed that an artist’s drawing of a women based on her self-description resulted in an image far less attractive than when a stranger was the descriptor. Its “You’re More Beautiful Than You Think” ad became the most viral ad ever at the time (2013), and over 85 million views were recorded on YouTube alone. Another, the “Evolution” campaign, which showed the impact of makeup, hair treatment, and lighting on appearance, got $150 million worth of free exposure. The Real Beauty campaign, together with the Dove Self-Esteem Project directed at teen girls, has reached a huge audience throughout the world and has changed attitudes and elevated self-confidence as well as become the heart of the Dove brand for nearly two decades.

Considering the Dove case as context, some questions arise: How will firms that aspire to address societal needs and problems in the purpose era actually create meaningful social impact? How will they develop social programs that make a difference and integrate them into the business strategy? The book The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding provides four strategies that differ substantially from those widely used because the focal point is the power of branding to enable programs to impact, nurture, and advance a business brand.



A business needs to be seen as going beyond financial success to make the world better by addressing society’s problems and needs. Even a higher purpose such as “building insanely great products” is not enough. Businesses should come up with programs that “make a difference” to society led by social purpose embedded in or adjacent to the business purpose. This social purpose enables firms to create programs that address societal challenges. There are several forces that support the elevation of societal efforts. Societal challenges are increasingly visible and threatening. Businesses with resources, insights and agility are needed; governments with political gridlock, resource limitations and a lack of agility cannot do it all. More people, especially millennials and Gen Z, are looking for meaning in their professional lives beyond a paycheck. Finally, businesses, especially those without an engaging offering, need the energy and image that social programs provide.


The centerpiece player of the purpose-driven branding model is signature social programs, such as Dove’s two programs, that address societal needs or problems that touch people emotionally; are credible, impactful and committed; are branded; and lift the energy and image of a business partner brand. These signature programs are likely to impact society challenges because they are focused, have a long-term horizon and are guided and motivated by a brand. A loose assortment of grants, volunteer activities and energy goals is not adequate.

Signature social programs can be internal branded programs such as Chick-fil-A’s Shared Table program, which has turned leftover food into 10 million meals for those in need. An organization can supply resources and know-how to an internal program over time and thus control its success trajectory. Or it can be an external partner that comes with a proven record and established brand, which can substantially reduce the risk of a disappointing performance. Costco, for example, has “visionary partner” status with Feeding America, one of its signature programs.


The central logic of The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding model is that these signature programs need to be integrated into the business strategy. A goal is to enhance the energy and image of a business partner’s brand and its ability to engage and connect with its stakeholders. For many businesses, this brand enhancement is a rare opportunity to generate vibrant growth (Dove is an example). By enhancing a business, the signature program will gain both the endorsement of the business and access to its resources. It’s a win-win. The alternative is for the signature program to be a self-sufficient orphan regarded as a financial deadweight.

The key idea is that the signature program enhances a partner business by building or reinforcing its brand. In contrast, most advocates of impact investing focus on helping a business by making windmills, farming organically or otherwise having or creating a business model that directly does good for society. While this is laudable, it is seldom a viable option, improving a partner’s brand is almost always feasible and visible. And ESG efforts, driven by extensive measurables, are almost always playing defense.


For all this to work, for the signature social program to do its jobs of creating social impact and enhancing a business brand, it needs to build a strong program brand that will provide guidance, clarity, credibility, visibility, inspiration and a communication vehicle. In addition to the many well-understood branding concepts and tools, there are a few that are described in the book that are less known but potentially game-changing in this context. Labeled the five “branding must-do’s” they include creating a social purpose, using stories to bring the program to life, finding underleveraged silver bullet brands, creating and leveraging brand communities, and scaling the signature program so that reaches more people with a deeper offering There are plenty of vivid examples of signature social programs, many described in the book, that made an enormous impact on society and dramatically enhanced the brand of a partner business. Consider:

  • Goldman Sachs 10,000 women in 2008 provided management skills and access to finance to women in underdeveloped countries. Ten years later, the goal was achieved and doubled, and Goldman showed to employees and others that its resources and know-how works to help the world.
  • Salesforce launched a Pledge 1% program (originally termed 1-1-1) in 1999 whereby the firm is to give 1% of its product, profits and time to address a societal need. A challenge to other firms to do the same got 10,000 takers and helped make Salesforce a social program leader.
  • Thrivent, a major financial services firm, has since 2005 been a partner to Habitat to Humanity, responsible for over $285 million in donations and 6.2 million volunteer hours from a membership network of clients and employees. The effort not only created homes all over the world but reinforced the Thrivent value of “Live Generously” and provided engagement opportunities enhancing the Thrivent and Habitat brands.
  • Barclays regained lost trust when the firm created a social purpose and an employee signature social program, the Digital Eagles, now 17,000 strong, that helps people adjust and thrive in the digital world. Stories about Digital Eagle engagements were successful in changing trust perceptions, in contrast to prior conventional ads, which had no impact.

The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding puts the power of branding into efforts to address society’s challenges. A signature social program, either internal or in partnership with a nonprofit, with a strong brand that reflects the program’s societal goal, credible approach, true impact and inspiration that surrounds it is the central construct. This signature program then enhances the business brand by fostering energy, an image lift and engagement by employees and others, which in turn creates justification to support the program with resources and endorsement—a win-win flywheel.

David Aaker, sometimes called the Father of Modern Branding, is the author of 18 books and over 100 articles on branding and business strategy. He is the Vice-Chair of Prophet, a branding, growth, and transformation consulting company.