An earlier version of this post was published in The Sponsorship Collective blog on September 20, 2016 under the title Redemption for Big Brands. It has since been revised. The post is adapted from an article in the August 2016 issue of The Sponsorship Report.
In the past, The Sponsorship Report has written about the emerging trend among forward-thinking brands to attempt to seize ownership of an issue rather than merely sponsor a cause. There’s no agreed upon term for this strategy, so for the sake of this post I’ll call it purpose-driven marketing – not a new term but, I hope, a new and clearer definition of what it entails.
The purpose-driven brand seizes an issue and makes it its own. More often than not, the issue seized is one that other brands have neglected. That allows the purpose-driven marketer to take a leadership role without elbowing anyone else aside, and that’s important, because the purpose-driven marketer acts generously. Its objective is ownership, but its strategy is leadership. The brand is confident that if it leads effectively, the market will link it with the issue or, more appropriately, the effective resolution of the issue. Dove did it with women and self-esteem. Bell may be on its way to doing it with mental health anti-stigma. CIBC may have done it with breast cancer, although that space is now heavily crowded.
Purpose-driven marketing is distinguishable from cause sponsorship and cause marketing on a number of dimensions. It’s not about supporting an organization or a program or even a cause. It’s about solving a problem. It includes a timetable and deliverables that allow the market to hold the brand to account. Though it involves a range of partnerships, it is the brand, and not a third party cause or organization, that leads the effort. There is an organic, natural link between the issue and the brand that makes it a credible voice for the issue being championed. And because of all of those factors, it galvanizes the entire organization behind the effort.
This basic theme was at the subject of an online meetup hosted by trendwatching.com this summer. They called it Big Brand Redemption, and the subtext was that the price of being big and powerful is that you cast a giant shadow. Whatever is wrong in the world, chances are a big brand is being held, at least partially, to blame. That strikes me as a bit harsh – that the price of being successful is being reviled. I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. I think, rather, that today’s marketplace is investing in the enormously successful the hope that they’ll use that success to be transformatively good. Purpose-driven marketing is a brand’s opportunity to match that hope with action and reap the rewards.
Why just big brands? Expectation for one. One thing we know about millennials is that they hold the brands they love to a very high standard. We see that already in successful start-ups. Trendwatching.com cites Tesla and TOMS as examples. They have social purpose baked in. Most big brands have been around for awhile. They have a brand narrative that purpose-driven marketing will have to rewrite.
Big brands also have the scale, resources and human capital to take on the issues that bedevil the rest of us. What most have lacked is the will, or perhaps the imperative, to do so.
For big brands to seize the opportunity, they must set the bar high, perhaps so high that failure is a possibility, confident that the market will not punish them for overreaching. They must publicly hold themselves to account, and allow the market to do the same.
Canada Post, Bell and Mental Health
Consider mental health which, before Bell took the reins in 2010, was a cause championed by Canada Post. Canada Post selected mental health as its cause of choice in 2007, committing to address the issue, not merely to sponsor a property. At that time it was white space in the cause sponsorship landscape – emerging as an acknowledged social issue but largely ignored by corporate Canada. Canada Post said it wanted to own it, a bold decision that was not matched by investment and, arguably, long-term commitment. It promised 1.5% of net revenues, roughly $1.7 million per year, to its program. That was a big number when weighed against other corporate partners engaged in mental health, but against the scale and scope of the issue, not enough to make meaningful change in consumer behaviour or attitude. Canada Post was a credible champion. It operates a high-stress work environment. But the nature of the commitment was weak. By tying the financial commitment to net revenues, Canada Post admitted out of the gate to its employees and to the market that its support was conditional. There was no articulated objective, no hard timeline.
By 2010, it was again white space in the cause sponsorship landscape, white space Bell chose to fill with a five-year $50 million commitment (renewed and enhanced in 2015) and an objective of bringing conversation about mental health out of the shadows through its Bell Let’s Talk campaign. As a telco, it is a natural advocate for the issue. Bell has embraced it completely, making the incomparable Clara Hughes its public face. Clara’s Big Ride in 2014 galvanized the nation. The program’s impact is felt across the company’s broad sponsorship portfolio and within the company’s corporate culture. Bell-commissioned research shows it has made a transformative difference in awareness of the issue and attitude toward it.
I’m a great admirer of what Bell is doing with mental health, but to fit into the purpose-driven marketing paradigm, I believe it has to take on more risk. Promoting conversations about mental health is a slogan, not a measurable objective. Objectives might have to do with mental health education as part of the high school curriculum, or ease of access to mental health services. These would be up to Bell to decide, and the big perceived risk would be that meeting those objectives would be beyond Bell’s control. There would be a risk of failure, but that’s part of the magic, because I believe it is the risk of failure that communicates to the market that the brand is serious about the issue it has taken on.
The real risk, according to trendwatching.com, is not in overreaching and failing, but in not reaching at all. Big brands, it suggests, cannot survive if profit remains their only purpose.
The lesson is that if you’re thinking of taking on an issue rather than a property and you’re not prepared to go all-in, think again.
CVS and Unilever
Trendwatching.com identifies four brands that it says have embraced the Big Brand Redemption concept. I’m not convinced all of them fit the paradigm as I have outlined it. But a couple do:
The sale of tobacco products in drug stores is prohibited across Canada, but not in the US, where tobacco sales can account for a meaningful percentage of drug store revenue. Despite this, US drug store chain CVS Health unilaterally withdrew tobacco products from its stores in 2014 and followed that up with #BeTheFirst, a five-year US$50 million plan to deliver the first tobacco-free generation in the US.
Unilever, through its Lifebuoy brand, has committed to reaching one billion children in Asia, South America and Africa with an education program promoting handwashing. The goal is to reduce the incidence of respiratory infection and diarrhea, two of the biggest killers of children in the developing world. Unilever initially set 2015 as its target, and missed. It has recommitted itself, however, with 2020 as the new target date.
Both CVS and Unilever are partnering with various organizations to reach their objectives. Both brands are natural advocates for their chosen issues. Both have set clearly measurable objectives that they are able to influence, but unable to control. And both brands have engineered their programs to allow the public to hold them to account.
CVS says that over a five year period it wants a 3% decline in the national youth smoking rate, a 10% decline in new smokers and a doubling of the number of tobacco-free college and university campuses. Given the scale of the problem and the ambition of the program, $50 million over five years may prove to be inadequate. But CVS also has a massive retail footprint in the US and potentially could influence behaviour well beyond what a $50 million investment would buy. The program’s objectives are outside of CVS’s control, giving rise to the real possibility of failure. But, I’d argue, the market won’t punish CVS for failure if the effort is genuine and substantial.
Look what happened with Unilever. It did fail. It missed its 2015 target by a wide margin, and its response might have been viewed as cynical in other quarters, but it was not. Unilever simply moved the goalposts, setting 2020 as the new target date. Has it been punished by the marketplace? Not at all. The problem was not in the execution, but in the ambition, and it appears that the marketplace readily forgives a brand for overreaching.
At CVS, according to trendwatching.com, general merchandise revenue fell 5% thanks to the tobacco ban, but pharmacy services revenues soared by 13.5%. Unilever’s handwashing campaign is tied to its Lifebuoy brand, which is still widely marketed in developing countries where the program is underway. It should move product by the container-load but, like CVS’s initiative, also save lives – evidence that redemption and self-interest can walk hand-in-hand.