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In today’s marketplace, brands are increasingly expected to represent something larger than their product or service. Consumers crave a deeper meaning in order to establish connection and loyalty. In fact, the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study shows that “Belief-Driven Buyers” have become mainstream. Results showed that 64% of those surveyed across the globe would “choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.” 

The desire for brands to “mean more” is a natural evolution of the consumer mindset. Everyone has a world of information at their fingertips that simply cannot be ignored. We have the ability to vote with our wallets in virtually every purchase we make. Ignoring that opportunity and buying whatever’s easiest isn’t just uncool — it’s unethical.

So, with these growing expectations, brands have adapted their approach to marketing themselves in myriad ways. Incorporating some form of higher intent is now par for the course. But there are two expressions of this that seem to have people a bit confused.

Both cause marketing and purpose-driven branding have been industry buzzwords for… more than a minute. But all too often, these concepts get confused for one another. While both are a signal of brands taking a greater initiative in the world around them, they are two different animals that sometimes look very much alike.

The reason they can look alike is because both are ways for brands to share their values. And also, because they often incorporate some form of CSR (corporate social responsibility). A good thing, no doubt. But this is where the confusion arises. Brands are eager to demonstrate their values, and creating initiatives with an altruistic objective is great way to do that. And that can happen within both cause marketing and purpose-driven branding.

Cause Marketing Is Focused and Fleeting

Cause marketing is typically campaign-focused. It starts when a brand chooses a charitable cause — ideally one that has a logical connection to the brand and who they are as a company — and finds a way to support that cause through their business. Generally, this involves partnering with a charity that the brand supports by incorporating a unique way to collect and donate proceeds via their business.

The well-known Yoplait Lids to Save Lives is a great example of cause marketing, and a long-running one, at that. Starting in 1998, Yoplait called on consumers to send in Yoplait lids which trigger donations to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Yoplait ran the campaign every September and October until 2016. It supported breast cancer research as well as their brand — with sales, visibility, and positive press tying them to a cause that many of their consumers care about.

There are hundreds of examples of this. Target’s Take Charge of Education, the Stella Artois #PourItForward chalices for clean water, Coca Cola’s partnership with the World Wildlife Federation to save their beloved polar bears, and more. And while all of these exhibit brand values, none of them demonstrate brand purpose. Cause marketing is tied to corporate giving — donating to a cause via charity — while purpose is built on initiatives woven into the business itself.

Purpose Is Broad and Long-Lasting

Purpose-driven brands incorporate beliefs and values into the very core of their business. They are baked into the culture, business operations, and long-term initiatives. A purpose is re-interpretable in nearly countless ways. It may or may not be tied do a specific cause. Often, it is broader and more aspirational.

Where cause marketing is “tacked on” to a brand, purpose is part of the blueprint. It is foundational. The associated mission is not a single goal that can be achieved simply. It’s something that lends itself to numerous smaller goals that contribute to a larger ongoing effort. Purpose infuses business decisions with a particular ethos that can take many forms.

For instance, Patagonia is one of the most oft-referenced of purpose-driven brands. In December, they updated their mission statement to crystallize what the company is all about in the eyes of founder Yvon Chouinard: “We are in business to save our home planet.” That’s a big task, which is exactly why it’s a great purpose.

Purpose means having a larger objective behind everything you do, and proudly wearing it on your sleeve. In Patagonia’s case, that has included publicly backing senate candidates that will work to protect natural resources, as well as giving employees a paid day off to vote.
And, of course, the ways Patagonia lives its purpose exist well beyond politics. Internally, they promote a culture of people aligned with the same beliefs. An article published by Fast Company last December quoted Chouinard on the topic: “Whenever we have a job opening, all things being equal, hire the person who’s committed to saving the planet no matter what the job is,” he says. “And that’s made a huge difference in the people coming into the company.”

In addition, they are committed to reducing waste by making products that last; working with influencers who support the same causes; manufacturing with an eye on environmental impact; and proactively working to heal and repair the planet. They use 100% organic cotton to lessen the use of pesticides and lower impact on the environment. They’ve donated 1% of profits to natural preservation since 1985. The list goes on. The point is, their purpose is the guiding principle behind what they do and how they do it.

Purpose-Driven Brands Take Many Forms

Yes, everyone references Patagonia because they’re a standout example of a purpose-driven brand. But there are many other purpose-driven brands that are making conscious efforts to achieve something larger through the way they do business.

Apparel company Life is Good states their purpose as “spreading the power of optimism” and does so through their product line messaging and through the Life is Good Kids Foundation, which “spreads the power of optimism to help kids heal.”

Dove encourages women to embrace their unique beauty by promoting self-acceptance and body positivity. Tesla’s on a mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” And Starbucks seeks to “inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

Note, all of these examples are altruistic, but brand purpose is not required to have ties to a specific social good, environmentalism, or some other cause. Though, often, they do. And that’s why people tend to conflate purpose-driven branding with cause marketing. What’s most important when it comes to purpose is that it is authentic and that it can manifest in everything a brand does. For reference, here are some purpose-driven brands that are less closely tied to CSR or cause:

  1. Nike: to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.
  2. Coca-Cola: to refresh the world, inspire moments of optimism & happiness, and create value & make a difference.
  3. Google: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  4. Southwest Airlines: to democratize the skies.

The Value of a Purpose-Driven Brand

Purpose-driven brands have a big intention that is intrinsically linked to their business, its objectives, and the way they operate. This is what makes them so easy for consumers to get behind. They are consistent. Their values are clear. And when those values align with the consumer, you have a much better shot at lasting, authentic loyalty  and, oftentimes, advocacy. Purpose has a tendency to transform customers into brand champions. Because when your brand values promote something they believe in, you’re already on the same team.

By Gary Kopervas

Gary is a self-proclaimed “creative misfit” in that he doesn’t fit neatly into any one compartment or department. He’s an insight spotter, brand strategist, writer, content creator, creative facilitator, product innovator and a nationally syndicated cartoonist.

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