Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 8.01.08 PM“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times”…Dickens could’ve been talking about the marketing and branding landscape of today.

Indeed, it is the best of times. We have a global audience. We can reach them and connect with them across mediums. We can build meaningful connections. We can be creative, demonstrative, and responsive.

And then just as we have the opportunities, we have the increasing cacophony of noise that comes from entropy…deafening us and leaving us confused and blindsided, tempting us to imitate what everyone else around us is doing.

Charity or CSR has suddenly burst onto the marketing landscape almost as a new marketing weapon. The cry is that the expectations from brands are suddenly changing. They are now expected to draw inspiration from real-life, authentic stories to build a connect with their audience. They are leaning towards human psychology to determine what emotions provoke actions.

The millennials can be credited for creating this perception. As this generation becomes the primary influencers of businesses, it is hard to ignore what they want…what they expect. Conventional wisdom in some influential circles is that this segment is drawn to brands that are linked to a compelling social issue. It’s widely believed that the customer of today finds it hard to connect with a business that devotes time just to make money and spends none to make the world a better place. And sure enough, organizations are ramping up their social and CSR initiatives. But does this strategy make sense?

Are we putting the currency of Purpose at risk?

We all agree that today Purpose is the new black. The new authentic. And today by indulging in charity and CSR acts, organizations want to buy social capital. Is there anything wrong with that? At the societal level, of course not.

Today’s consumer likes to think of themselves as ‘good people’. Quite obviously, they want to do business with a brand that has an altruistic side. And while CSR activities are a great way to show consumers that you care about something bigger than yourself, making charity interchangeable with Purpose is an invitation to disaster.

Charity and Purpose – Are not two sides of the same coin

Purpose, in itself, has a higher mission. It links back to a brand’s core values. Purpose offers more than just profit. It focuses on the value the brand wants to deliver to the consumers and yes, even, society in general. Purpose is demonstrated through the actions, strategies, and communications of the brand. Purpose has to be a part of the DNA of the brand. Purpose is a business driver – It answers why you do what you do (rather than just what you do). This is how your consumers realize how the brand aligns with their share of personal beliefs.

CSR and all charity activities are an offshoot of brand Purpose. A great way to improve brand equity. To that crude extent, Charity and CSR initiatives are marketing initiatives, one of the several methods that a brand can leverage to demonstrate its Purpose.

Let’s take Lego’s Sustainable Materials Centre as an example. This center is dedicated to research, development, and implementation of new, sustainable, raw materials used to manufacture LEGO elements as well as packaging materials. In today’s environment that demands sustainability, this stands out as a great CSR example. But how does this play into Lego’s Purpose? The answer is, complex. Lego’s Purpose is to “To inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future – experiencing the endless human possibility.” Lego has taken this responsibility to children and the future head-on in many ways. They rolled out a commitment to reducing their environmental impact and achieved 100% energy usage from sustainable sources a full 3 years ahead of schedule. The commitment to reduce the plastic in their bricks can be seen in this light. It makes sense.

The Dutch seem to have got the difference between CSR and Purpose spot on. According to the Dutch Corporate Governance Code, CSR is a goal that cannot be pursued by itself. It has to be an “integral part of the day-to-day operations of a company that focuses on long-term value creation.”

Organizations can no longer be innocent bystanders to what is happening in our society. They have to play an active role in serving the communities that sustain them. So when Coca-Cola launches a strategy like World Against Waste that promises the equivalent of 100% of its packaging will be collected and recycled by 2030 or when Adidas created Earth Day football tee shirts worn by all 23 of the US’s Major League Soccer (MLS) teams made from upcycled ocean waste or when Nike sparks controversy with its ad starring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest racial injustice we take notice. And we applaud the brand.

But while brands do this, they have to be careful about being genuine. If they are not, they risk being called out. The touchstone is whether the cause fits into the Purpose of the brand.

Taking a stand on social issues is laudable. But if your actions do not align with your track record or your core values, your consumers won’t believe you.

So, what a brand stands for today might well include CSR and charity. But ‘Purpose’ is what it stands for today and for the foreseeable future. Ultimately what your consumers want is for you to be authentic and trustworthy. It is Purpose that helps you decide how best you can help my community. It helps you take actions that reveal your true and authentic self. By remaining rooted in your brand Purpose you can walk the good talk.


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