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Build a social-purpose programme that works

Tom Hammick

Match your firm’s social aspirations to its growth needs to create social programmes that meet consumers’ expectations and build business value.

Customers now expect their favourite brands to embody their social values as well as meet their functional needs. Being seen to be socially responsible strengthens a brand’s image, and drives sales and profitability. It’s a win-win, but only if you do it right.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Omar Rodríguez Vilá and Sundar Bharadwaj say the best social-purpose programmes are authentic, inform innovation and steer investment towards social causes. Here they explain how to compete on social purpose.


Brands can contribute to social causes by:

  • donating money, time, know-how and resources;
  • addressing social needs through their product offerings;
  • helping to shift perspectives on social issues through their ad campaigns and social media; and/or
  • building facilities that address community needs.


Brands like Patagonia and TOMS have integrated social responsibility from their inception, but they’re in the minority. Most firms still build and maintain market share by competing on price and functionality. Your firm might be good at engaging with environmental and social concerns, but that’s not the same as embodying social purpose.

To marry the social with the commercial, you need to find an area of societal or environmental need to which your firm can make a genuine and meaningful contribution based on a combination of the following:

1) Brand heritage. Dove has always been a beauty product, not a soap, so it makes sense for the firm to champion causes related to perceptions of beauty. Mine your brand’s heritage for the values on which it is built.

2) Consumer concerns. To address America’s febrile debate around immigration, Budweiser’s recent Super Bowl ad drew on the immigrant story of one of its founders. Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing” advert aired during the Vietnam War. When political and social narratives are incompatible with consumers’ experience, wishes and desires, they look for resolution. Look for ways to draw on your firm’s story, to address your customers’ wider concerns.

3) External impacts. How does your industry negatively impact on the world around it? The food and drink industry is often blamed for contributing to childhood obesity. AirBnB built its platform around inclusivity but recently faced criticism that some of its members are racially discriminate. What can your firm do to right the wrongs of its industry?


Starbucks’ Race Together campaign to address race relations in the US backfired because people thought it inauthentic. When SunChips launched a biodegradable bag for their potato snacks, it crinkled so loudly the company withdrew it amid a frenzy of social media derision.

A social need must be more than simply good fit for your company, it also has to offer the potential to enhance the value of your brand, create new brand attributes and produce a positive media response – or it won’t work.

Once you have compiled a shortlist of suitable social or environmental needs to address, assess the business case for them by examining them in relation to the following:

1) Brand core values. How does social purpose enhance your brand’s existing message? What new messages does the programme create? And how hard will the proposed programme be for others to copy?

In 2014, Vaseline faced a crisis of brand identity. It needed to remind the older generation of its core values and, at the same time, attract younger customers. New global brand director, Kathleen Dunlop, and her team went back to the brand’s strapline: “The healing power of Vaseline” and consulted with physicians from a range of medical and aid agencies to determine where that “healing power” was most needed.

They discovered Vaseline is an essential part of emergency first aid kits, especially of the kind used in refugee camps, where its application can stop skin cracks and blisters from becoming infected. In 2015, the Vaseline Healing Project partnered with the non-profit Direct relief, with the aim of reaching five million people facing poverty and disaster by 2020.

The Healing Project is a success, not because it’s a good PR exercise, but because it marries a business goal – brand revitalisation – with a social need.

2) Adjacent markets. Look at social purposes to see which offers potential for new products and services for current customers that may open new markets or attract new customers, and which best lowers costs or raises profits.

Until 2005, Brita was known for its tap-water filters and jugs, but with the rise of the bottled water market, the company’s growth slowed. The company identified waste reduction as a social need, and worked to combine its filter technology with reusable bottles. By doing so, the firm could tap into the bottled water market, buoyed by the claim that each of its filters would save 300 bottles from ending up in landfill or the sea.

The move into bottled water was relatively easy for Brita, but their filter technology was hard for competing firms to replicate. Three years after taking the plunge, the firm’s revenues had increased by nearly half.

3) Customer associations. Before adopting a social need, look at it from the customer’s perspective. Will they find it relevant? Will they easily link the brand with the cause? Will they positively associate the cause with the brand?

Nike has invested heavily in waste reduction over the past ten years. But it doesn’t trumpet its attempts to reduce its environmental footprint to consumers. Nike knows its customers are primarily looking for sports shoes that are comfortable and attractive, and that they tend to associate environmentally friendly manufacture with reduced durability.

Instead, Nike adopted women and girl’s participation in sport as its social purpose. In 1995, Nike spokeswoman Vizhier Corpus said: “If you are a parent interested in raising a girl who is physically and emotionally strong, then look to sports as a means to that end.” At the time, Nike had 10% of the women’s apparel sector; now it has 23%.

4) Stakeholder acceptance. Will the people working at the coalface of the social cause you wish to adopt appreciate your efforts? Can you really make a significant difference, and will the public think your firm’s efforts are for real?

While Dove promoted an inclusive vision of female beauty, parent company Unilever simultaneously promoted its “Axe” grooming products for men, using images of women who conformed to the very stereotypes Dove was challenging. The public soon spotted the inconsistency, and accused Unilever of being disingenuous.

Whenever a firm adopts a social purpose, not everyone will agree with its stance; make your decision to proceed with a particular programme based on a realistic assessment of the likely friend-to-foe ratio. When in 2011, Coca-Cola teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to try to protect the polar bear, it found itself thrown into the political debate about climate change. While many supported the firm, some climate sceptics accused it of pursuing a political agenda, and a number of retail customers refused to display the promotional material in their stores.


Companies cannot ignore the fact that issue-conscious customers are sensitive to their favourite brands’ willingness to place social purpose at the heart of their mission. The challenge for managers is to add value for customers, while making a genuine contribution to the social issues they champion, and driving growth.

Source Article: Competing On Social Purpose
Author(s): Omar Rodríguez Vilá and Sundar Bharadwaj