The social Brand Purpose of big brands. Kindness, or just Marketing?

Purpose, Mission, Vision, Values, Brand Manifesto… today the big brands have more abstract concepts than the Bible itself.

All these concepts mark the strategic direction of the company in one way or another, even if they are generally not taken to the letter. They are there to look at them from time to time and help us to redirect the actions, especially those in communication. But lately, especially in the wake of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, it seems that suddenly every international brand has a social purpose to which they are very committed.

I have an internal struggle with this issue. I think it’s great that brands have a purpose and use it in their communication. If they are also social or environmental causes that are in everyone’s interest, even better. But I’m having a hard time really believing it. Is it really the purpose of the brand, or is it just the purpose of its communication?

I would distinguish between brands that were born from a purpose, and brands that have created a purpose later on.

Nike’s case is exceptional in terms of communication. But few companies move at that level of branding. I do think Nike has a purpose from the beginning (I recommend reading Phil Knight’s biography, «Shoe Dog.» It’s very interesting to know the beginnings of Nike). They’ve always wanted everyone to feel like an athlete and keep fighting for their dreams.

«Nike exists to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. Our Purpose is to move the world forward through the power of sport – breaking barriers and building community to change the game for all. *If you have a body, you are an athlete.»

BUT, it’s of little use to me that you have great purposes, if your company doesn’t act like your brand dictates. Your purpose is worthless as long as you continue to have low-wage employees in non-compliant factories, or your environmental impact remains very high – I’ve tried to find data on their environmental impact, but only data on the reduction they want to do appear («Nike will reduce their carbon emissions in the global supply chain by 30% by 2030″), but nothing about your current emissions. Of the damage already done, there is no talk.

I’m very glad the brand wants to create campaigns to promote social causes, but I think the company does the planet and society more bad than good. And I don’t go against Nike specifically, but it’s the example that is most often highlighted.

That separation between brand and company is what gives me the internal struggle I was talking about. Nike as a brand is 10, but as a company? Hmmm…

In any case, I don’t blame them. It is very difficult to keep a company working from and for a purpose when it is a social/environmental one (or one that goes beyond what the company sells).

If they only lived for their purpose, they would be an NGO. But they are a company that has to generate profits. Therefore, they continue to use their purpose commercially to attract more customers. And the purpose will, of course, be something that most of your potential customers feel identified with.

So more than a criticism, I just think we should lower the concept of the purpose of the clouds because I think it’s not so much about the «goodness» of brands but about the need of taking advantage of an opportunity that’s there. Opportunism? A lot of times too.

On the other hand, there are brands that do manage to live from and for their purpose. Some examples:

  • FrankAboutTea – «Tea that changes lives, delivered into your letterbox».Born to end the exploitation of tea farmers
  • TheGoodRoll – «Safe and clean toilets for everyone!». They use 50% of their benefits to build toilets in Africa. The paper is 100% recycled and its packaging has unique designs.
  • Tonys Chocolonely – «together we’ll make chocolate 100% slave free»

And other companies that make their purpose the centerpiece of their brand

  • Toms – Was born for the purpose of «One for One». Now its mission is to «invest 1/3 of our profits in grassroots efforts, like organizations creating change at the local level, and driving progress from the ground up». That is, not just make a donation but go further and help communities in their development in a sustainable and gradual way. (Now, let’s compare Nike’s brand purpose with the actions of this brand, whose resources are a small part of Nike’s. Now it looks like Nike doesn’t contribute that much, does it?)
  • SOKO – Born to support artisan women in Kenya. «Artisans working with SOKO earn nearly 5X more than an average artisan workshop.»
  • Patagonia – «Cause no unnecessary harm. But we recognize that this is not enough. We seek not only to do less harm, but more good.»

But there are also many brands that have a purpose that doesn’t fit your company’s practices. I’ll stay with the positive actions they take, while I wait for them to review and improve the negatives.

In short, in my opinion I believe that:

  1. Many brands have a purpose that is not consistent with the company’s actions. Their purpose is a marketing action.
  2. A brand can live for its purpose, although it is difficult.
  3. A company can have a social purpose and support it in a consistent way.
  4. A company does not have to have a social purpose, as it is not an NGO. I don’t think we should demand it. As Nobel Peace Prize Jody Williams said, if you can get peace in your family, you’ve already achieved a lot. If you get peace with your friends later, you’ll have done a lot. This extrapolates for the purpose of brands because I think that, as long as they are correct within the company, they will have already achieved something very big.
  5. Many brands use greenwashing or similar techniques. I don’t think it’s wrong AS LONG AS everything they do goes according to what they communicate.

If you were a brand, what would be your purpose?

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