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A large scoop of social purpose

Published Aug 13, 2020 – By Martin MacConnol


I want to say thanks to Ben & Jerry’s. On the day I take part in an international webinar on social purpose in marketing, they choose to tackle the UK Home Office over migrants. It couldn’t have been better timed.

Scanning the media coverage of the Twitter spat between the ice cream brand and government I realise that social purpose has a long, long way to go. A lot of people have accused the brand of virtue signalling, of a desperate attempt to appeal to a Woke audience. Many see it just as a piece of cynical marketing.

Me? I’m not so sure, particularly after yesterday’s debate with agency leaders in New York, Mumbai and Toronto on the growing role social purpose will play in marketing in the months and years ahead.

At Wardour we think it’s totally obvious that we are going to see more of this style of activity from brands big and small. Here’s why:

1) We live in a world where there is increasing regulatory pressure for companies to think of stakeholders beyond their shareholders: in 2018 the UK Financial Reporting Council revised the corporate governance code to make establishing corporate purpose a board responsibility. This is about showing, as a business, you have a point which is more than just making money. This change is just a starting point.

2) Aligned to this, the really big investors, the likes of BlackRock and our own clients at Legal and General, are driving the social purpose agenda through the way they do business. L&G deliberately targets investments which improve the infrastructure of the UK. BlackRock is holding boards to account for their governance and purpose. Such a gravitational pull is hard for most companies to ignore.

3) There is increasing evidence that those companies which have a social purpose, and which walk the walk, rather than just producing a policy statement and then carrying on as before, do better than their peers. For instance, the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, produced in part by our clients at EY, argued that companies which actively put purpose into practice outperform the market by 42%. As evidence like this mounts sceptical boards will adapt their behaviour to keep up.

4) The risk of all this being derailed by Covid seems not to be likely. Regulators and major investors are intensifying their focus and not diminishing it. Their argument is that companies which have a purpose are better able to withstand the shocks of market collapses: they are not all about short term gain. They have reserves – and critically they have consumer loyalty and trust.

5) Consumers won’t allow a backslide. Maybe this is wishful thinking? But we seem to live in a world of greater and greater public activism, ironically only accelerated digitally from our couches by Covid. People want better of their institutions, and that includes the brands they buy.

All of which was at the heart of what we talked about at our webinar, Marketing Reimagined, yesterday. And all of which brings us back to Ben & Jerry’s.

For me what the ice cream firm did on Twitter is a clear example of it walking the walk of social purpose. It’s been a leader in this area for decades. It must have known there was a huge risk in voicing such a polarising and political view. It did it anyway, I suspect because it believes in this stuff, not just because it thinks it appeals to the Woke.

Was it right or wrong is not for me to say. And I’m certainly not advocating to any of my clients any time soon to do anything that dramatic, but I am glad there are big brands out there prepared to take the risk and to bring social purpose in marketing more to the fore.

What we are saying to our clients is that we live in a world where how you market yourself is shifting. Brands need to be prepared to show ever more empathy with audiences that may be struggling. Brands need to focus more on messages which provide a benefit to their audiences rather than just selling them goods and services.

The brands that do this will build trust and value over the long term.

If you would like to hear a recording of yesterday’s webinar please click here

My thanks to my co-presenters yesterday: Munni Trivedi, owner of Team Magenta in Mumbai; Andy Seibert, managing partner of Imprint in New York and Jacqueline Loch, past chair of the Content Council and EVP Customer Innovation, SJC Content, Toronto. And thanks to those who joined as and made it such a rich debate.

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