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Marketers discuss how to make sure brand purpose doesn’t come off as lip service

Afdhel Aziz, Carri Twigg, Dena Wimette and Mekanism's Jason Harris speaking at Advertising Week New York

It’s 2017, which means most brands by now realize the importance of having a brand purpose that goes beyond making sales. But if Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner ad is any indication, many brands - even those stocked with resources and reach - are still having trouble striking a chord with consumers when it comes to taking a stand on social issues.

During a panel at Advertising Week New York, a group of marketers and advertisers discussed how brands can not only find their brand purpose, but also implement it in a way that will resonate with consumers as well as help solve the issue at hand.

Dena Wimette, senior global innovation and communications manager at Ben & Jerry’s, said that she’s been lucky to work for a company whose founders “really believed from the start that companies have a role to play in making the world better.” Since the company was founded 1978, it’s gained a reputation for being outspoken on issues including climate change, racial justice and LGBT equality. Last year, the ice cream maker was one of few brands to publicly support Black Lives Matter.

Wimette said that brands who only support a cause once it becomes mainstream to do so risk coming off as inauthentic to consumers, particularly if it’s apparent that they’re jumping on a bandwagon of sorts. Case in point: many brands were quick to tweet out celebratory messages when gay marriage was legalized in the US, despite the fact that many of them had remained mum on the subject beforehand.

“Everybody had rainbow-themed Twitter posts, but when the issue began, nobody was there,” she said. “To me, that begins to feel a little less authentic.”

Afdhel Aziz, founder of Conspiracy of Love and co-author of the book ‘Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn,’ echoed Wimette’s sentiment, stating that Absolut was supporting gay marriage and gay rights long before it was popular to do so. Because of this, he said the vodka brand has been able to garner loyalty and support within the LGBT community over the years.

He also said that Absolut’s recently launched ‘Kiss With Pride’ campaign, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK, shows the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community since it calls out the fact that homosexuality is still illegal in 72 countries.

“Right now, Absolut is running ads about how being gay is illegal in international countries. This is where it gets really interesting, because in some of those countries, Absolut could lose business," he said. "There’s an interesting quote from Bill Bernbach, who said, ‘It’s not a principle until you lose money.’ So this is the real acid test [to determine] whether the brand sticks to its values.”

The panelists also discussed how even well-intentioned brands can end up botching their social good initiatives if they don’t do their due diligence to ensure that their efforts will help instead of hinder a cause.

Carri Twigg, former Obama official and chief operating officer at social impact agency Revolve Impact, pointed to Starbuck’s 2015 ‘Race Together’ campaign as an example of a well-meaning initiative gone wrong. The initiative, which involved employees writing ‘Race Together’ on coffee cups in hopes of sparking a conversation about race amongst customers, was largely criticized as a cheap marketing ploy.

Twigg said that while she applauded the effort since “we need a national discourse around race,” she felt that trying to get people to engage in a conversation about race relations over their morning coffee wasn’t the best route to take.

“That was one where they clearly cared, but didn’t quite think it through enough,” she said.

She added that brands should make sure that they fully research the causes they’re hoping to champion to ensure that they understand what progress has already been made and what more needs to be done.

“If you see a problem, you should assume that someone's dedicated their life to trying to solve it. You should go and find who that person is and tap their knowledge,” Twigg said. “If you truly care about solving a problem, you’re going to solve it faster or you’re going to make more progress if you have a clearer understanding of what the issue is. I see a lot of people who are motivated by all the right sentiment, but they may not actually understand the problem that they’re trying to solve.”