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Coca-Cola and McDonald’s 5 tips to marry brand purpose and revenue

By Minda Smiley and Seb Joseph

Big brands are embracing purpose driven business strategies but their eagerness often means it has no bearing on their commercial targets. Brand chiefs from Coca-Cola and McDonald’s share five ways to marry revenue and purpose so that cause-related marketing does not leave your business looking like an NGO.

The cause cannot define the brand

People buy into brands for many different reasons and the purpose “probably won’t be one of the most important” for most customers, admitted Nick Hindle, senior vice president of UK corporate affairs and North West division strategy and alignment at McDonald’s. Speaking at a PRCA event last week (4 February), he warned companies not to mess too much with the brand experience in the name of “purpose-driven” marketing. “I have not come across a reason yet where it was the sole reason for consuming a brand. It can get in the way of success.”

Coke’s head of brand PR Joan O’Connor admitted to speakers at the same event that the struggle to tie commercial messages to social purpose is a tough challenge. “Success for us is when we’re able to measure trust, brand love or purchase intent when judging the impact of [purpose-driven marketing]. It’s not about whether we get a shed load of coverage,” she added. “But you don’t want that idea to be able to address some tension in society, while having some relevance to the brand or company’s point of view.” Both urged companies to take a wider view of the power of purpose beyond the marketing department. Purpose is not an add on, it’s a culture change and it never finishes, they both agreed.

Accept you can no longer manage your brand

It is something Coke and McDonald’s admitted they have endless internal discussions about. In its simplest sense, it means accepting that brand managers are losing the power to control the perception of their products through carefully crafted advertising campaigns. People increasingly discuss and disseminate branded content, said Coke’s O’Connor who added that corporate branding is transforming into a cross-disciplinary and strategically driven process.

“It's not just the role of brand PR specifically to drive brand purpose, added O’Connor. “It's a top down approach, ie the business needs to lead the agenda and use social purpose to drive business needs whilst being true to the values of the brand/company. It's perhaps then a bottom-up activation of it through the brand in terms of getting scale and understanding from consumers.”

Remember: Multiple brand owners have a harder time uniting the company around a singular social purpose

“Companies are bigger and often have bigger revenues than the GDP of countries,” said McDonald’s Hindle. For large organisations with multiple brands, it can be difficult to unite the company around one unified social purpose that actually makes sense and feels genuine. Coke’s O’Connor said social purpose campaigns are now taking place at brand level – she mentioned one recent example where Fanta built 100 non-branded play parks for children in Germany. However, Hindle mentioned that “any brand that’s going to promote itself through social purpose is going to have its motives questioned,” warning that inauthentic purpose-filled activity won’t deliver the long-term returns that companies are seeking.

Purpose-led brands need to be separated from charitable giving brands

It’s no surprise that Ronald McDonald Houses Charities (RMHC) has been tremendously successful – more than $200m has been collected through RMHC donation boxes, and RMHC programmes can be found in 78 per cent of the world’s best children’s hospitals. As a mission partner, McDonald’s has helped the charity through monetary contributions, volunteerism, board participation, and media donations.

However, McDonald’s Hindle said that it’s important to recognise that while these sorts of charitable works do make a company better, that doesn’t mean they necessarily align with the company’s core values or even relate to the core of what the business does. As the restaurant competes with fast-casual competitors such as Chipotle – which recently made headlines when it stopped serving pork at certain restaurants because one of its suppliers was violating the company’s animal treatment standards – it is clear that the company is grappling with a social purpose when faced against competitors who have built brands based on sustainability and transparency.

Find a way to have a positive impact on society and make some money at the same time

Purpose isn’t about saving the world (although it can be). Companies still thinking this way are only seeing half the picture, agreed both Coke and McDonald’s. Marketers tend to equate purpose with CSR when in actuality it is about finding a way to prove to people that the more they buy into their brand then the better off society will be. They rightly laud the likes of Dove and John Lewis as purposeful brands, according to McDonald’s Hindle but miss the point that both do, rather than say, when it comes to their purposes.

“If you get purpose right within an organisation then it should rain gold dust on every decision, championing a set of principles that impact everything from suppliers to consumers,” said Giles Gibbons chief of executive of Good Business, a branding consultancy that has worked with both Coke and McDonald’s.

However, coming up with such an idea is easier said than done. “It’s important that we don’t say it’s easy to find these things and that it's going to work for everybody,” added Gibbons. It won’t always be as easy to find something as powerful as Dove’s “Real Beauty” positioning and so once companies decide that they want to stand for something more then they need to keep trying and trying until they do. “It is why there aren’t more examples [of brands with social purpose] out there,” he added. “Once you start on this road, you can’t get off”.

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