McDonald’s and Coca-Cola reveal plans for combining commercial and social purpose

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are exploring ways to convince consumers that the more products they sell the more that society will benefit, fuelled by a tightening bond between commercial and social purpose objectives.

Their efforts stem from a realisation that social purpose needs to be baked throughout the organisation to encourage modern consumers to buy into them long-term. Consequently, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are sweating brand PR harder to demonstrate the issues in which they claim to believe.

It is an approach that admittedly carries a higher risk for both companies. They are wary of burying their commercial objectives under NGO-style communications that could be devoid of any long-term business impacts.

Do social purpose, don’t say it

Speaking at a PRCA event yesterday evening (4 February), Nick Hindle, senior vice president of UK corporate affairs and North West division strategy and alignment at McDonald's, said the business “couldn’t afford to let the cause define the brand” because it “gets in the way of success”.

The restaurant conceded the difficulty in getting its franchisees to agree on a common social purpose as it struggles to emerge from a sales slump. It is why there is urgency behind efforts to amplify the brand’s corporate purpose, internally and externally, around the link between the quality of its food and its sustainability efforts.

“People buy into the brand for many different reasons and the [social] purpose will be one of them but probably not the most important for most customers,” Hindle warned. “If you interfere and mess around too much with the core experience and the way the brand is delivered then you will not be thanked by your customers.”

This realisation is bringing brand and corporate communications closer together at McDonald’s and Coke, propelled by the belief that sales will come if they are seen to be evolving at the same rate as society.

Where CSR has traditionally been heaped onto communications teams that have struggled to make an impact with small budgets, McDonald’s and Coke are now backing PR to make their points of view on the outside world watertight.

From Storytelling to Storydoing - should PR have a higher purpose?

Joan O’Connor, head of brand PR at Coca-Cola North and Western Europe, told delegates at the same event that the business was on the hunt for ways to integrate social purpose into brand communications, putting it at the heart of its marketing. It means a greater focus on assigning KPIs such as purchase intent, trust and brand love to future strategies.

“If [social purpose] doesn’t have the brand values at heart then it doesn’t have the business values at heart and that won’t have the consumer at the heart of what you’re trying to do,” she added.

“The idea isn’t going to work because there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle where it can work on all those levels. Getting all of that to work simultaneously is a massive undertaking.”

Many of the world’s top brands are aware that pivoting around social purpose would boost their long-term prospects. However, a lack of case studies highlights the difficulties in stimulating the change, particularly when the average tenure of the chief executive now is four years.

And yet there is hope. Unilever has committed to doubling the size of its business by 2020 at the same time as cutting its environmental impact by half. It is an ambitious target but because chief executive Paul Polman is leading the charge, social purpose is being spread from PR and marketing to the rest of the business.

At a time when digital is spreading companies much more widely around the world, companies are realising that purpose is not an add-on. It’s a culture change and it never finishes.

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