Recently, I ran across a surprising statistic: according to a 2018 Gallup poll, 36% of Americans say they have “felt the urge to organize or participate in a public demonstration” in the past year. That’s up from only 10% the last time Gallop asked that question – which believe it or not was in 1965, a time of great social unrest related to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and more. Another 2018 poll from the Washington Post found that 20% of Americas had actually attended a political or social protest rally in the past year.
It’s data like this that leads me to conclude we’re living in a new social climate in the US, one in which whatever we believe, we’re more adamant about it than ever. This has been obvious for a while in the political arena with an increasing partisan divide. We also see it in the social activism arena, with everything from #MAGA to #MeToo, and in the consumer arena where grassroots movements from #Grabyourwallet to #DeleteUber have had a marketplace impact. More and more people seem willing to act on their strongly held beliefs, whatever they are.
Yet activism on the part of brands is lagging. Today most brands obsess over 'finding our purpose', sometimes spending months trying to discover and articulate their 'why'. However, for most brands purpose comes with pitfalls, chief among which is 'purpose-washing' – adopting a higher ideal that’s a marketing ploy than anything else. I’m thinking specifically about brands who take a controversial stance on a social issue, but whose only meaningful action is to make a TV commercial or video about it (hello, Gillette and toxic masculinity.)
Yet I think the bigger purpose pitfall is benign neglect. Too often a brand’s purpose ends up dormant, sitting in a PowerPoint somewhere or a plaque on the CMOs wall, but never really acted upon in a meaningful way. And in some ways, that’s not surprising, since a purpose that’s inspiring is almost by definition lofty, making it easier to talk about than act upon.
Jumpstart your brand purpose
This idea of activating brand purpose is near and dear to me because it’s what we specialize in at StrawberryFrog, where I lead strategy. We pioneered an approach called 'Movement Marketing' that’s proven to help brands avoid the hazards that come with pursuing purpose. A big part of this approach is a structured brainstorm we call a FrogLogic session in which we ask ourselves some tough questions to jumpstart creating a purpose a brand can act on. Here are a few of them:
What’s the enemy? Knowing what a brand is against can give focus and energy to what the brand is for. For example, nearly all banks have a purpose that dances around the idea of “helping move people’s financial lives forward.” This can obviously lead to actions that are generic. But if we think harder as to what a bank brand’s nemesis is – financial insecurity, fear, or lack of understanding, etc. – clearer and more ownable actions bubble up.
Is your thinking at the right 'altitude'? Some brands aim too low on the purpose ladder (e.g., “our purpose to serve our customers.”) Nice to know, but what do you do differently based on it? Other brands aim so high that it triggers the B.S. meter. I once found myself saying to a client, “What if it really IS just a salty snack, not a self-actualization tool?” You don’t necessarily have to take on a huge societal issue to do successful purpose branding.
Does your purpose have buy-in at the top? More than once, I’ve seen a brand’s high-minded purpose initiative be shut down by top company leadership as either not pragmatic enough or 'too risky'. This has happened often enough that I once seriously considered writing a blog post called 'How to be a socially conscious marker - when your company’s leadership doesn't really believe in anything'. Bottom-line, if your company’s top leadership isn’t 100% on board, a higher purpose is likely to just be window dressing for your brand.
Does it inspire on the inside? – I’ve often found that a good first step in articulating an actionable purpose is to ask the question,” what would make an employee want to get up and go to work every day?” If an employee can readily put a brand purpose to work in his/her job, it shows in the customer experience – which is what actionable purpose is all about. That’s why purpose marketing nearly always works better when it works from the inside out.
More and more today consumers not only have strongly held beliefs, they’re acting on them. It’s time for marketers to do the same: to move from purpose-finding to purpose-activation, to get our collective heads out of the clouds and put our brands’ highest ideals to work out in the world.