More than ever before, marketers recognize that a strong brand purpose earns long-term brand loyalty and builds “deeper emotional bonds with consumers.” As we approach the end of 2018, brand activism has become mainstream, and activist brands are perceived as the expected norm rather than the rare champion. According to the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study, “54 percent of consumers believe it is easier for people to get brands to address social problems than to get the government to act.”
We’ve clearly done our jobs well to position brands as agents of change. And while this commitment to social initiatives connects brands and audiences, marketers shouldn’t neglect content that also speaks to more basic, functional needs. A September 2018 study from WE Communications found that functionality is increasingly important for consumers. The research reports that, “Many markets saw a year-over-year uptick in the percentage of respondents who wanted to support purely functional brands as opposed to purpose-led brands.”
So what sets the brand-purpose experts apart from the novices? Research shows that reaching exceptional status occurs when marketing pursues both purpose and practicality. That same WE survey used these findings to categorize different brand’s marketing efforts on how effective they were as “drivers of motion.” The brands that met both the criteria for current customer need and long-term emotional investment were categorized as “Movers.” These were the ideal cases where “customers want and need this brand or category’s products and have high expectations around innovation.”
The results reflect the idea that social good campaigns are successful largely because they allow people to feel as if they can “have their cake and eat it too.” Customers are most satisfied when they purchase something that fulfills their everyday needs and simultaneously contributes to an ideal they believe in. This dual-benefit on both the individual and social level should be clear throughout every stage of your marketing.
So how can brands develop a balanced, multi-level content strategy that speaks to both purpose and practicality?
A truly successful content strategy balances the “why” of an overarching brand mission statement with the “what” that brand promises to deliver. Far too often, marketers position their purpose as completely separate from their commercial initiatives, mistakenly thinking that separating the sale of their products from what they stand for is more authentic. However, a large reason brand activism has been so publicly accepted is that companies have clear-cut business objectives that allow them to speak to their audiences from a familiar and trusted platform.
Image attribution: Melany Rochester
“Brands are so much better placed to narrow that frightening values-action gap that politicians have to confront (where the voters say one thing and promptly do another), and are somehow more trustworthy precisely because they are so clearly in the business of making money out of doing the right thing,” writes Jonathon Porritt for the Guardian.
Brand activism is unique because it propels improvements in society not through pure rhetoric or moral appeals, but by encouraging people to consider the social impact of how they buy and use products. Porritt goes on to explain that the trust built between companies and consumers creates a natural space for innovation. “While politicians sit around waiting for people to show them where they want to go, companies can use the power of their brands to help normalize our behavior—’wash at 30C’, ‘less is more’ (with concentrated detergents or energy-efficient light bulbs,” he writes.
Of the more than 27,000 consumers who participated in the 2018 WE study, the majority of people surveyed said they would be more likely to support a brand that offered a high level of personal effectiveness and functionality than a brand that displayed a “high level of purpose” or participation in activism efforts. Rather than place themselves in the role of a public moral compass by leading with promises to solve major social injustices, brands should seek to first meet a more fundamental need in an innovative way. Companies must build a baseline of trust and reliability that their product will effectively serve its primary function before they join in the fight for the greater good.
For an example of how activist marketing campaigns should start by understanding their audiences functional needs, let’s look at two campaigns by the Clorox Company, which each attempted to address the cause of environmental activism.
Image attribution: NeONBRAND
In 2008, Clorox launched Green Works, a line of environmentally friendly cleaning products sold in biodegradable packaging and marketed as being made with “99% natural” ingredients. The line struggled to engage consumers, and sales for the “green” products dropped from $53 million in 2009 to $32 million by 2012.
Green Works market performance may be partly due to misaligned messaging to different portions of its audience. Multiple research studies have found that the majority of consumers believe that green cleaning products “aren’t as effective as standard chemical-based cleaners.” Combine this with the findings in Clorox’s market research that only 15% of consumers perceived sustainable ingredients as an important consideration when purchasing household goods, and it becomes clear that the brand may have needed to put more weight into showcasing product performance if they wanted these new green products to land with the general public.
The ecological angle of the campaign gave the brand a natural opportunity to reach a new target audience, those segments of the population who were already invested in environmental causes. However, marketers faced a barrier reaching these audiences as well. They first had to overcome the skepticism among environmentalists that associated the company’s popular bleach products with negative effects to city water supplies. In response, Green Works partnered with the Sierra Club, a prominent large-scale environmental preservation organization, to address these concerns.
Meanwhile, consumers who already used these standard cleaners, had skepticism of their own about the impact of switching over to a socially conscious alternative. In their 2014 Household Cleaners Report, iModerate Research Technologies advises brands marketing green products to promote the “payoff” in their content through “words like ‘effective’, ‘guaranteed’, and ‘better than’ to show consumers that green products can get the job done.”
The message is more compelling when both the social and personal benefits are clearly in view. This was the case for the water filtration company Brita, another brand under the Clorox helm, which used social purpose to expand its influence in adjacent markets alongside championing an admirable cause.
Originally marketed just as a tap-filtration system, Brita entered into a public competition with the bottled water industry in 2016 with the launch of its filtered portable pitcher products: Brita Stream. Brita urged audiences to ditch bottled water as a way to support environmental activism. Liz Tung, Clorox associate director of national shopper marketing, expressed concern in a 2018 interview with Shopper Marketing that unless customers cut down on water bottle consumption, “by 2050 there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
While the initiative to reduce plastic waste was a strong cause to attract audience interest, the brand understood that getting people to adapt to any change—even a positive one—involved making the switchover process as simple as possible.
Image attribution: Valeri Randalainen
As part of the Brita Stream product launch, they created in-store experiences for shoppers that showed the filter in action, using lights to draw attention to the water pouring from the spout, and demonstrating its dynamic tagline, “Fills Quickly. Pours Immediately.”
According to ShopperMarketing, the brand’s new Stream technology was part of “a mission to transform the way Americans drink water, and ensure it’s innovating products that are as easy to use, if not easier, than bottled water.” In addition to the retail marketing efforts, Brita also targeted consumers in their homes by partnering with vacation rental service VRBO to install filters in prominent rental homes near high-profile events like Coachella.
Just three years after Brita took up this new reusable water pitcher campaign, its revenues grew by 47%, according to the Harvard Business Review. The ability to select and execute on a successful brand purpose strategy in their marketing was not due to the moral value of the initiative, but in its relevance to their services and their decision to build new brand stories that combined activism and product adaptability.
Whereas it was once believed that corporations desire to sell products and earn profits are what made them less genuine in the eyes of the public, today’s consumers are much more receptive to transparent marketing tactics. They understand that financial gain and societal well-being are not inherently at odds with each other.
If brands truly want to make a difference in the world as public advocates for social reform, they’ll need the resources and customer investments to maintain their platform. For content marketers this means, creating campaigns that demonstrate a competent and reliable service. Once audiences trust you to deliver on your main goal, then they’ll be confident they can follow you in the fight to serve a higher purpose.
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Featured image attribution:Hưng Nguyễn Việt