Brand purpose and profit – can we square the circle?

June 2nd, 2015 / Nick Honey

I’ve been meaning to comment on an article from The Drum a little while ago about how Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are facing challenges with their cause related marketing and the revenues generated.

To paraphrase, Nick Hindle, McDonald’s Senior Vice President of UK Corporate Affairs and North West Division Strategy and Alignment, 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.”


I’d like to talk through a few things with Nick if ever he has a moment. Firstly, it’s very rare that there is a “sole reason” for consuming a brand, including reasons of social good.

Most brand choices are a complex combination of emotional and rational considerations in both the conscious and sub-conscious minds of customers. So, I’m afraid expecting “purpose driven marketing” to be some sort of new silver bullet in persuading people to consume your brand, Nick, is a hope too far.

Secondly, Nick suggests that promoting the support of a social cause “can get in the way of success” – presumably he means campaign effectiveness, response and ultimately profit. It’s a shame Nick doesn’t think supporting a cause is a success. But credit where credit’s due, McDonald’s does make an effort to get involved in good causes, it’s just that few people know about it.

The fact is, you enjoy a burger in your head as much as in your stomach. Doesn’t it taste that bit better when you know it’s produced using prime beef, with respect to farmers, the environment, employees and your own community? I think it does.

If you disagree, imagine instead that your burger was produced with the cheapest, mechanically recovered offcuts and offal, from animals that only received the minimum standards of welfare, and that the farmers and processors were all screwed down on price and staff were paid the lowest wage legally possible. How does your burger taste now?

Cocoa-Cola also spoke at the same event. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

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 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.

I agree with Joan and Nick on that last point. But Joan is also trotting out a version of that old management cliché from the last century: ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’. 21st century brands support a cause because they believe in it, because it’s the right thing to do, not specifically and only to measure and drive sales.

Over the years I’ve worked with quite a number of brands where purpose/cause related marketing played a significant role, including organisations like the National Trust, UNICEF, Ecotricity and Budget Insurance (surprising, but there’s a story there).

Ecotricity is a great example of a commercial company with a cause, championing the issue of climate change. In focus groups I’ve run for them I’ve witnessed an incredible level of advocacy from their customers. And advocacy equals loyalty. Loyalty equals higher lifetime values.

But Ecotricity didn’t arrive at this by having a brainstorm meeting and wondering: “How do we increase customer lifetime value?”… “Oh, here’s an idea, let’s support the climate change issue.” The company, led by Dale Vince, believes so strongly in meeting the challenges of the environment that it’s at the heart of the company.

I’ve chosen a shining example there, but what about organisations and every day commercial brands where their commitment to a cause is perhaps less fervent? Here’s five starters:

1. The cause you support must be endorsed, if not originated, by the founder, board and/or investors. They will define the scale to which the cause is supported with appropriate allocations of resource. When I went to meet Unilever’s marketing team on the issue of climate change a few years ago, they only had ONE person, with NO budget! Compare that to their brand team, which had seemingly endless millions.

2. It’s better if the cause you support is related to the business itself. So a building society could support homelessness, a children’s clothing brand supports children’s charities, a bank supports poverty. Google, for example, has invested, or committed to invest more than $1billion in renewable energy projects given they know the extent to which data centres and servers have historically created a demand for fossil fuels.

3. Don’t try to measure ‘profit benefits’ from supporting the cause. You engage with it because it’s something in which you truly believe, because it’s the right thing to do for the less fortunate in society, for the environment, for all of us… and that happens to include the company itself.

4. Make sure you weave cause related messages into your existing programme as a tertiary message, or make it even more subtle than that. The point is it needs to permeate everything you do, consistently and over a period of time. Dedicated campaigns have their place, but they’re not essential.

5. Involve yourself as deeply as you can with the cause, so your commitment goes beyond just supporting the cause with cash donations. Offer expertise, staff resources, dedicated projects or staff sabbaticals.

For too long, many brands have focused on how they can extract the most revenue from their consumers. But brands that show they have a wider interest in their customers, in the issues that affect their lives and their world, have a greater chance of success.

Here’s wishing the very best of luck to all those brands that have the foresight to make that choice.

Love this post? Read some more of our thoughts on cause-driven brands in ‘Get responsible: how brands benefit from being the good guys‘.

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