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Why charity brands now need brand purpose

As we’ve entered the era of brand purpose, businesses, not charities, are seen as being the best placed to deliver social value. Our blog looks at what charity brands can do in response to reclaim trust and social purpose.

A revolution has taken place in branding. Once upon a time there were clear boundaries between sectors and brand categories. Charities delivered good for society. Corporations made money for shareholders. Government kept things ticking along smoothly – apparently.

But the boundaries between brand categories have been blurring as we’ve entered the era of brand purpose, where companies define their social purpose and place it at the heart of their brand and corporate strategy not just on the corporate social responsibility side-line.

Much of this is a result of changing technology and boom and bust economics. The calamity caused by the financial crisis of 2008 left in its wake a distrust of corporate brands, fuelling a debate about the role of business: for stakeholders, employees, customers and society at large. Then, with the growth of social media came a call for greater transparency.

The era of brand purpose began in April 2010. Paul Polman, former Chief Executive Officer of consumer goods giant Unilever, criticised the City of London’s short-term focus on ‘shareholder value’. He went on to launch the Sustainable Living Plan to demonstrate a new – good – way of doing business. He wanted to double sales, halve Unilever’s environmental footprint, source all materials sustainably, and increase its positive social impact by helping one billion people to improve their health and wellbeing by 2020.

By 2015, UK businesses could register as B Corporations. A certified B Corporation is a purpose-driven business that creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Ella’s Kitchen is one of the best known in the UK, with a purpose to create healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

As Chris Jenkins, Ella Kitchen’s European Sustainability Manager, says : “Over the past five years, we’ve seen debates about social impact and business purpose rocket to the top of the corporate agenda. Spurred on by a series of very public corporate scandals, consumers are increasingly demanding more from the brands they buy. One thing is clear: this generation of consumers and prospective employees is demanding that brands are driven by a purpose beyond profit. Far beyond the ubiquitous CSR bolt-on policy, businesses across all sectors are being forced to implement changes right at the heart of their brand strategy”.

The momentum built further in January 2016 with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. They provide a 17-point plan to solve the world’s woes, with the support of 193 governments. It’s a tool that’s being used to forge more partnerships between businesses and charities.

At the same time, trust in charity brands hit a ten-year low following a series of press scandals. For the first time businesses, not charities, were seen as being the best placed to deliver social value.

In March 2017, Tesco launched its first campaign about its commitment to tackling food waste, with departing Chief Executive Dave Lewis hailing “purpose-driven” brands as a way of building consumer trust.

Then at the start of this year business leader Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, made a passionate plea for purpose in his annual letter to investors: “Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. Purpose is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits, but the animating force for achieving them. Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.”

Purpose is a company’s fundamental reason for being – what it does every day to create value for its stakeholders. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits, but the animating force for achieving them.

The main danger with this trend is accusations of “purpose-washing”, when people feel a brand’s attempts to be purposeful aren’t authentic and are just designed to ‘look good’ through advertising or PR, as experienced from Pepsi to Heineken.

A recent example is Cadbury. World famous chocolate-maker George Cadbury is a well-known philanthropist, establishing the Bournville Village Trust to help low-income families afford rent, known as ‘Ten Shilling’ or ‘Sunshine Houses’. But more recent efforts to tackle racism with a “unity bar” or combat loneliness through a partnership between Dairy Milk and AgeUK have been ridiculed in the press and on social media.

Unilever’s new Chief Executive Alan Jope has warned brands against cashing in by ‘woke-washing’ in advertising, claiming the purpose category is being “polluted” by brands that fail to take real action after making false promises. “There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world,” says Jope.

Despite accusations of ‘purpose-washing’, the business case for purpose is clear and compelling:

  • 64% of global consumers say they choose brands because of their stand on social issues
  • 91% of millennials would switch brands for one which champions a cause
  • Brands recognised for their strong commitment to purpose have grown at twice the rate of others over the last 12 years (http://www.netimperative.com/2019/06/cannes-lions-unilever-boss-warns-woke-washing-hampering-brand-purpose/).

Purpose has been proven to increase profit, staff engagement, recruitment and retention, as well as deliver more social good. Win, win, win.

Purpose has been proven to increase profit, staff engagement, recruitment and retention, as well as deliver more social good. Win, win, win.

There is no doubt that the charity sector is suffering from a steady stream of negative press stories and a lack of brand differentiation, as charity brands have become increasingly similar by adopting a ‘fighting’ spirit. This is predominantly led by charities that conduct medical research, but also extends to children’s and environmental charities like NSPCC and WWF.

So, as commercial brands park their tank on our lawn, what can charity brands do in response?

The Philanthropy Centre has recently published a report which explores how to create a brand that works for fundraising with four ‘Ps’. They advocate building a clear brand strategy as future brand leaders are now taught. This means starting with a clear articulation of what you stand for:

Purpose: Why you exist and the value you create for society

Proposition: What you promise to deliver and what you want people to think, feel and do

Personality: How you behave and communicate (often translated into values).

Once you have your brand strategy in place you need to bring it to life with ‘Passion’. By passion, they mean emotion. Branding is, and always has been, a transfer of emotion. It’s about changing how people feel. Human psychology and neuroscience teach us the best way to inspire action is to engage with people on an emotional level. So, your brand expression (visual identity and tone of voice) and engagement (marketing communications, fundraising and content) need to elicit an emotional response.

So, if your charity brand doesn’t have a clear purpose, it’s about time you did.

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