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The 6 Pitfalls Of Purpose Marketing

Corporate social responsibility, in its myriad forms, is quickly evolving from a nice-to-have marketing asset to a brand requirement: To wit, nine out of 10 of consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, according to the “2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study.”

“In a world where trust in big businesses has been eroded and social media can amplify reputational risk, it is vital that brands show they stand for more than making money,” said Mark Larson, global head of KPMG’s consumer markets and retail industry practice. Today, that goes beyond efforts to do as little harm as possible but to do good—and be seen doing good.

“What’s changed and continues to change, at an accelerating pace, is that consumers expect brands to do much more than they traditionally have,” said Jessica Joines, CEO of JLJ Marketing, where she helps brands embrace what she calls the “consciousness economy.”

“Consciousness is now actively informing consumer purchase decisions,” she told CMO.com.

But managing—and marketing—the conscientiousness of a large organization is easier said than done. More than two-thirds of U.S. senior executives said their companies are more committed to corporate citizenship than they were three years ago, according to a recent Nielson survey, but just 39% of the general public thought the same. Savvy consumers can quickly see through so-called “brandwashing efforts,” and ill-conceived efforts can backfire.

Purpose-driven marketing is great when it works,” said Theresa Forman, vice president of strategic services at marketing agency McMillian, in an interview with CMO.com. “But the risks are that it’s not always effective and, as a result, may harm your brand—or at least not get the intended results you are looking for.”

The bigger risk, however, may lie in doing nothing at all.

“We’re in a very disruptive and highly competitive environment, with limited growth in some areas and decreases in others,” Larson told CMO.com. CMOs and others tasked with driving revenue can reap significant benefits from well-thought-out and executed programs that highlight social or environmental efforts.

“The good news is that purpose drives profit,” Joines said. Seven out of 10 Millennials (and 66% of consumers overall) will pay more for a product they believe makes a social impact, according to the Cone Communications study. And employees who work at mission-focused organizations they believe in can be more loyal and productive.

CMO.com talked to business leaders about how to avoid the most common mistakes in corporate responsibility efforts to ensure they resonate both within the company and in the marketplace.

Pitfall #1: Going Off-Brand
Whatever causes a company chooses to put its brand behind must align to its ethos. “A brand should not attempt to develop a radically different campaign or develop a new product before taking a good look internally and considering the brand story,” Joines said.

Mattress maker and online retailer Leesa donates mattresses to organizations that provide services to adults and children seeking refuge from homelessness, domestic risk, and human trafficking.

“Purpose isn’t a marketing idea,” said Leesa CEO David Wolfe. “It’s either in the DNA of your company or it’s not.” The 3-year-old company’s success is measured as much by the brand’s social as by its sales, according to Wolfe. “Our marketing materials never lead with our social impact programs, [but] we do share news about our programs because it’s important to everyone involved including our customers,” he told CMO.com. 

Similarly, advanced analytics company SAS launched a “data for good” initiative that donates its software and services to help organizations like the UN International Organization for Migration, the World Wildlife Fund, and Wounded Warriors. CMO Randy Guard noticed that customer stories with an impact generated more engagement and launched the program to tap into that interest.

“That may sound opportunistic, but it’s actually consistent with our character as a company,” Guard told CMO.com. “SAS was socially responsible before so many companies adopted these practices. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been ranked as one of the best places to work for years. We knew we could have a similar impact on our software brand by spotlighting the positive things we were doing with analytics.”


Pitfall #2: Misreading Customer Values
Most companies want to be seen as good corporate citizens, but the most significant benefits accrue only when those efforts resonate with customers. “There’s a risk if you head down that path without a really good understanding of who your customer is, what they value, and what they want,” Larson said.

Even at Kimpton Hotels, a brand with a three-decade-plus track record of responsibly caring for people and the planet, chief commercial officer Kathleen Reidenbach said these efforts must begin with tuning into customers. Marketing and business leaders should begin by listening. “Start with a field survey, targeting both customers and employees,” Reidenbach told CMO.com.

For the past five years, Kimpton has partnered with the Trevor Project to provide crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth by donating room nights, meeting space and catering, and hosting fundraisers. Its employees volunteer and give back to local LGBT causes and march in pride parades. The company also publicly backs what other brands might consider controversial legislative measures, signing amicus briefs that led to the Supreme Court decision to approve same-sex marriage, armed with the knowledge that customers would value the effort.

Pitfall #3: Overreaching Or Overselling
It is critical that an organization take an objective look at its strengths and weaknesses “and call out the inherent qualities it wants to advance,” said Mark Viden, vice president of brand marketing at not-for-profit hospital system Dignity Health, which launched a campaign highlighting acts of kindness and compassion within its health system.

Overselling a strength or glossing over an off-message weakness will backfire. “A lack of honesty about any social or environmental programs, including progress or lack thereof, could do more harm than good,” Joines said. “Consumers expect to participate and be informed of a brand’s efforts, including what’s working and what’s not.”

It’s better to show a modest impact or admit to a issue rather than try to spin them, said Method Communications executive vice president Beth Haiken, adding that business leaders should triple check any claims to make sure the company can support them.

Pitfall #4: Creating Mandates Instead Of Opportunities
For purpose marketing to work, the mission needs to be adopted by everyone in the organization. “Most people want greater meaning in their lives and to do something they can be proud of,” Joines said. “Tap into that.”

Mars Chocolate North America has partnered with Comic Relief and Red Nose Day for the past three years—a natural fit for a fun and colorful brand, said Tanya Berman, M&M’s senior brand director. The company also donated nearly a million dollars’ worth of products for military care packages last year, a nod to M&Ms’ role providing military rations during World War II. Both are causes that employees are engaged with and excited about, Berman told CMO.com.

At Kimpton Hotels, a now companywide partnership with nonprofit No Kid Hungry was championed by employees in its restaurant division. “That employee-driven philosophy continues to be our guiding light,” Reidenbach said. “It’s important that they have the tools, channels, and leadership support to continue to give to the causes closest to their hearts.”

Pitfall #5: Not Measuring Results
Like any smart business and marketing decision, these efforts must be based on data and real returns.

At $3.2 billion SAS, “We do things because it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t automatically mean our marketing dollars should promote our work for social good,” Guard said. “We measure our marketing, no matter what the message.”

Unless you’re running a nonprofit, conversations about purpose marketing should be grounded in dollars and cents, Joines said.

“When you talk about doing good or purpose, people tend to think you’re talking about fluff or soft metrics,” she said. “[Marketing and business leaders should] lead with phrases like, ‘There’s a fundamental economic shift underway that’s impacting our company’s growth.’”

Pitfall #6: Sitting On The Sidelines
The best way to align a brand with some larger purpose might not be immediately apparent, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. “Find a purpose that embodies everything your company stands for—and if one doesn’t exist yet, build it,” advised Monica Ho, CMO of GroundTruth (formerly xAd). In 2015, Ho launched the company’s “Location for Good” initiative, which applies GroundTruth’s technology to the more rapid distribution of AMBER Alerts, for example.

“We’ve helped drive significant attention and results to some very important causes across the globe,” Ho told CMO.com. “At the same time, GroundTruth’s internal culture benefits greatly from seeing its technology and team members do their part to make the world a better place.”


“Don’t assume your brand doesn’t fit the mold,” Joines added. “Every brand can align with a higher sense of purpose. If efforts are developed authentically and appropriately, there is every opportunity to thrive no matter the business model.”

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