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Two separate things
When we worked on our extensive project on Brand Purpose (1), we reached the conclusion that there is often a large amount of confusion between purpose and social responsibility. This is highlighting some potential downsides as mixing the two may well reduce the impact these activities can have on the overall business performance.
Keeping your house in order
In our view, Social Responsibility should be related to keeping ‘your house’ in order. This is related to the impact that your production and distribution activities as a company have on the outside world. It includes, for example, your sourcing, your manufacturing, your logistics, the way you treat your suppliers and workers. In all these activities you try to minimize the negatives and potentially maximize your positive impact on society and the world overall. It has to do with reduced emissions and more limited use of water but also fair remuneration of farmers and good conditions for workers. To this extent Social Responsibility is about the HOW and it is related to solving problems by being reactive and acting upon them.
It is important to say that nowadays Social Responsibility is a must, but also that it is no longer able to build a real competitive advantage. If you have it, you are ok, but you do not really drive consumer preference. If you do not have it, you may well be punished by consumers in their choices and preferences.
Leaving your house behind
Purpose is what the brand/company brings to people on the top of its direct services/products. This takes you out of ‘your house’ and connects you with areas that are well beyond your core brand offer. It can affect life, consumption habits and meanings. This relates to the WHY and it is about improving life and society in general. To this extent Purpose is much more proactive identifying workable solutions which can improve the world. In doing so the level of ambition of your Purpose can vary a lot and it should always be well rooted in your corporate/brand DNA.
A well-structured system: OMO
If we look at a brand like OMO, we can see a good case of Brand Social Responsibility and Purpose following their own streams. OMO is working in a structured and continuous way. The brand has a very clear Social Responsibility objective, well defined by the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle approach. This is driving product concentration as well as smaller doses and packages and is then linked to the overall Unilever objective of halving the environmental footprint associated with the production and use of their products (2).
On the Purpose side OMO developed the ‘Dirt is Good’ message and linked it to the “Free the Kids” concept with the aim of pushing more children to play outside as this is a fundamental component of their education and wellbeing. OMO has then articulated a series of concrete initiatives within this Purpose including activities such as building more than 600 playgrounds around the world or supporting the Outdoor Classroom Day, encouraging millions of schoolchildren to spend a day “learning outside in nature“.
All of this was falling naturally and authentically within the claimed Purpose.
Separated but connected
The two activities, Social Responsibility and Purpose, even if connected are different. If you do not clearly define them you may end up with a lot of social activities that are not properly linked to your purpose and so authentically motivated and structurally defined. The downside is a consumer perception which judges the activities to be far from authentic. Authenticity is nowadays one of the most important features for a brand (90% of Millennials, 85% of GenX and 80% of Baby Boomers say authenticity is important to them when deciding which brands they support) (4). The risk is for these activities to be seen as “social washing” and not as being genuinely motivated with a real contribution to the society.
Having in mind a specific scope for Social Responsibility and Purpose and following through in terms of activities within a coherent ideation and implementation program will build a strong and well supported system to the benefit of both the brand and the world.
(2) Unilever, 2017
(3) thespacestation.com.au, 2016
(4) Stackla 2017 Consumer Content Report: Influence in the Digital Age. Base: online survey conducted to a panel of potential respondents, 18 and older, from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia between September 29,2017 and October 5, 2017. There was a total of 2,008 respondents with 1,007 from the United States, 501 from the United Kingdom, and 500 from Australia.