How to succeed in the purpose economy

Today the only way to stand out is to stand for something. We now live in a society where people demand transparency, authenticity, meaning and purpose. Before, we were living in the digital revolution where retailers scrambled to get online and get on social channels. But with all this digital noise, consumers are now feeling overwhelmed and have their filters on – they are looking for brands that add meaning to their life.

All consumers want a better world and want retailers to take action to make the world a better place. For instance a 2017 YouGov study found 87 per cent of Australians think business has a responsibility to do social good. While 55 per cent would recommend a brand that gives even a small portion of its annual profits to charity.

And the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand report found nearly two in three people are belief-driven buyers who choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on social issues. Even more importantly for retailers, 65 per cent of consumers will not buy a brand because it stayed quiet on an issue it was obliged to address.

One example of a brand that addressed an issue its industry struggled with is Dove, with its “real beauty” campaign. It conducted a study with 3000 women in 10 countries and found only 2 per cent of women found themselves beautiful. This led them to empower “real women” of all shapes and sizes and feature them in its campaigns, while shunning unrealistically thin airbrushed models.

This campaign started in 2004 and is still running. What has made it so successful is that Dove did its homework, and actually talked to its customers. Retail brands need to seek this sort of engagement; when they do, they turn their customers into their tribe.

Today, both Dove and Ben & Jerry’s, which are both owned by Unilever and share a bold social purpose, are growing 35 per cent faster than the rest of the brands in its portfolio. Meanwhile an internal staff survey also found that 90 per cent of employees say they are proud to work at Unilever – happy customers, happy employees.

Another example of a retail brand that uses its social purpose to create deep loyalty with its young customers is Sportsgirl. In 2006 it asked customers what the most important issue to them was and found 66 per cent of girls were unhappy with their body image – again. Since then it has partnered with The Butterfly Foundation and runs awareness campaigns to address eating disorders within its loyal community.

The retail industry needs to work out what its values are and how it can meaningfully bring them to life. I’m not talking about a superficial marketing campaign that just throws money at a charity or gets on some trendy bandwagon. You and your customers really need to care for the cause, over the long haul, and your PR and marketing needs to have a bold social purpose at the heart of its activities.

Today consumers are looking for four major qualities in retail brands:

  • They want retailers to be actively invested in the solution of social and environmental problems. For example, Lush Handmade cosmetics has launched its Naked range, which doesn’t use any plastic packaging.
  • They want companies that prioritise making an impact on the world around them and help to protect the environment. For example, food chain Zambrero, which is positioned as “Mexican with a Mission”, has its plate-4-plate program that helps feed the hungry.
  • They want companies to be open and honest about their efforts – and to be public about their initiatives. For example, from its inception The Body Shop has publicly campaigned against testing on animals.
  • They want companies to involve their customers in their good works. For example, activist ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s launched its Fight for the Reef campaign to help save the Great Barrier Reef and got customers involved though a petition.
  • They want an opportunity to give back – whether it’s with a gift of their time or their money. For example, Toms shoes has its “one-for-one” program where each time you buy a pair of shoes, a pair is donated to a child in need.

Before retailers engage in any PR or marketing they first need to identify what their social purpose is – what social issue makes them angry, and what do they and their customers deeply care about? They then need to use their social purpose to drive their communications.

My advice to help retailers stay competitive in this “purpose revolution” is to find and share their social purpose and then integrate it into their corporate culture, PR and storytelling. They need to share their journey and the impact they are having.

To get started on their social purpose journey retailers need to:

  • Select an issue that is extremely engaging and a concern for their customers and relevant to their industry and products to partner with long term.
  • Choose initiatives that align with their company mission, values, products and services and supports their business goals.
  • Involve their staff and customers in their cause.
  • Once a cause is selected, they need to commit wholeheartedly. Avoid any short-term solutions or promises they can’t fulfil or their partnership will be viewed as just a marketing or PR exercise.
  • Recognise that they will be expected to demonstrate their commitments in their own corporate behaviour, policies and practices.
  • Share their journey and remember it doesn’t have to be perfect. They just need to show they are doing something to help solve a problem they deeply care about.
  • Create a strong competitive advantage by using values-driven PR, social media and storytelling to educate customers on the issue they deeply care about – ie, the way Ben & Jerry’s does with global warming.

Because today, as Richard Branson says, “The brands that will thrive in the coming years are the ones that have a purpose beyond profit.”

Dora Nikols runs Social Mission, a PR agency that specialises in building and promoting purpose-led companies.

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