How Brands Can Carry Out A Social Mission

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How Brands Can Carry Out A Social Mission

To carry out a social mission at scale, brands must operate on a level higher than simply focusing on consumer behavior change linked to their products. They will advocate for broad-based efforts to support systemic change benefiting society at large. Here we are talking about the role of brands raising awareness for a social issue that brings greater value to society beyond increasing buy-in to the brand and the products manufactured. It entails talking to governments and cultural influencers, and bringing along citizens in the hope of sparking a groundswell of support and collaboration that lasts for years, not weeks, and beyond individual campaigns.

While brands can of course communicate with policymakers on a case-by-case basis, they often gain more traction when bringing to the table their creative expertise in advertising and engagement towards a higher purpose. Shifting public perception towards healthier outcomes can have a win-win-win for governments, brands and the public. But doing it well means approaching it with a different mindset than conventional brand communication.

Taking A Stand In Today’s Popular Culture

Enlightened brands have realized that broadening out to shift public perceptions and general cultural narratives is key to educating consumers, not just focusing on policy. They have done this partly because of wider social trends in authority, as the public is less likely to trust the recommendations of governments and other major institutions. They are more likely to trust their peers or someone like them, which makes democratizing channels such as social media increasingly powerful. As Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone, has pointed out, “Today we are able to connect, learn and share at a speed and scale never before possible.”

With traditional authority figures losing their influence, companies and brands have a greater opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to shape narratives and communities for the better. Social power is moving to looser arrangements, more networked, open source, collaborative, transparent, short- term and conditional. Popular brands, whether national or global, can help fill the gap with their unrivaled reach and trust built over years with consumers, including a ready- made presence on media with television and digital advertising. They can tap into “tribal” communities of people who share a certain interest or commitment. And brands can and are starting to take a position on moral issues which they have previously not done (such as Walmart on gun control and the sale of certain types of ammunition).

In a study of global brands (“The Truth About Global Brands”), across 29 countries, 81 per cent of 30,000 consumers surveyed agreed that brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives. They tend to trust companies and brands to drive change quicker than politicians and multilateral organizations. But be careful: once trust is broken, it’s hard to repair. As the author Seth Godin has said, “If you earn trust then you can do everything else, but if not, then you won’t create any progress let alone a movement.”

A key principle for creating a movement is attracting other partners to your cause. The word “advocacy” in fact comes from the Latin “advocare”, – to call out for support. Purposeful brands do that by enlisting help from a wide range of partners and ordinary people to achieve their stated goal. They open up discussions with governments, community leaders, NGOs, and consumers, building trust and support around a mutual objective and prompting policymaking and funding to hasten transformational change.

Advocacy is primarily for the benefit of society in general, and nowhere is this truer than with public health, so benefits to the brand must be secondary or long-term. This is why we are calling this brand advocacy, where brands will achieve far more by thinking and engaging broadly, using their iconic status and creative skills of their people to keep the key issue on the public agenda. Ambitious advocacy efforts often require rival brands to come together, as with Global Handwashing Day when Unilever’s Lifebuoy worked with Procter & Gamble’s Safeguard and Colgate Palmolive.

Setting Roles With Partners

Businesses have a role to play in influencing policy. If you get the right group of businesses together, then you have a higher chance of showing what the right policies could be, working with the governments. Paul Polman says this on the role of businesses in setting policies: Businesses are not policy setters; you need to set policies in partnership with governments and others. The Modern Day Slavery Act in the UK, introduced when Kevin Hyland was the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, is a fine piece of legislation. Likewise the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US. Of course some companies don’t like these Acts, but today you have to ask these companies why don’t they like it?

The 2015 UK Slavery Act introduces new requirements for organizations in regard to their business and supply chains. It’s important to work in tandem with government, not just lobbying for market advantage but for wider policies. But here we are talking about creating social movements. While there is no universal consensus definition of a social movement, academic definitions generally share three criteria: a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity. For our purposes, we will define social movement as the following: “a group of people working together to advance their shared ideal”.

This group creates change together; they DO something. Brands make that happen by tapping into universal emotions: Nike does not just sell running shoes, it promotes courage: “Just do it”. Domestos is not just a toilet cleaner, it combats poor sanitation. Apple does not sell hardware and software, it sells creativity and innovation.

Many public health issues already have national or global networks to support collaborative advocacy, from the World Toilet Board to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. The Global Handwashing Partnership (previously the Public–Private Partnership for Handwashing), for example, helped the Lifebuoy brand to promote hygiene, getting handwashing higher on the agenda of international policy groups such as Sanitation and Water for All. The coalition is seen as a neutral convener, so its proposals get more respect than brands acting alone. When the pharmaceutical company Bayer proposed the World Contraception Day, it drew on a coalition of 17 NGOs, government organizations, multilateral bodies and medical societies.

Social Missions Need Emotion, Reason And Vision

Still, brands do best when they focus on mass awareness and engagement to drive social change, as that’s the unique expertise they bring. After all, a brand works by evoking a series of connected feelings in people. Those feelings are not just about using or consuming a product; they can also mean working with the brand to accomplish broad goals.

Similarly, social movements depend on emotional appeals as much as reasoned arguments. And even with those arguments, consumers – especially youth – are more likely to accept advice and education from a trusted brand that “gets” them (their behaviors online, media consumption, values etc.) than a traditional authority trying to communicate a broad-brush generic nationwide health message to millions. For example, the Edelman survey says 49 percent of consumers believe brands can do more to address social ills than government.

A successful movement has a few key characteristics. It has a positive vision for the future, not just a fear of the present. It speaks to each individual’s personal sense of justice through their connected identity. It uses symbols, language and culture that resonates. It calls for tangible, repeatable and sustainable ways to act, both material and ritual. It gives people agency and makes them actors, not just beneficiaries. Finally, it brings people and communities together on shared platforms and through partnerships.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Myriam Sidibe with the permission of Routledge. Excerpted and adapted from Brands on a Mission, How to Achieve Social Impact and Business Growth Through Purpose.

The Blake Project can help you define and develop your brand purpose and create a social mission.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

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