Social Purpose Isn’t a Brand Strategy

To be competitive, social purpose organizations will need to adapt and develop new strategies to remain relevant and grow their support in modern culture.
Social purpose isnt enough

Nonprofits, social enterprises, and philanthropies must come to terms with a challenging truth: having a social purpose or social mission simply isn’t enough to compete in today’s rapidly evolving marketplace. It’s not that social purpose doesn’t matter. People care more about purpose than ever before. 91% of consumers believe that even corporations must have a social purpose behind their products. According to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Sustainability Report, 73% of Millennial respondents are willing to pay more for brands that have “sustainable offerings.” Today’s workforce considers working for a purpose-driven organization a prerequisite for submitting a job application.

You could argue that this is progress, that people are demanding more than products and profits in a more socially conscious capitalist society. But this presents a real challenge for true social purpose brands. Social purpose isn’t perceived to be a meaningful differentiator when Gillette is competing with a social messaging and Anheuser-Busch is preaching sustainability as a serious focus behind their brand.

Simply put, the lines between traditional corporations, purpose-driven brands, and nonprofit organizations are blurring more and more. It seems that soon, every company will have a socially responsible or impact-focused message tied to their brand.

To be competitive, social purpose organizations will need to adapt and develop new strategies to remain relevant and grow their support in modern culture. They will need to learn to integrate best practices around branding and marketing as essential components to their strategic planning—equal in importance to their success as their core programs, products, or services.

If we peel back a few more layers, social purpose in and of itself, has never been enough.

In our society, organizations must provide tangible value in exchange for support—financial support or otherwise. That value can be provided in many different forms: a product, a service, or even a perception of improved status. Value can even benefit a party other than the supporter—such as donating money to a foundation focused on improving lives in underserved communities. Value can also be split between the supporter, beneficiary, and society at large—a model that “Buy-one-give-one” brands like Toms Shoes and Warby Parker are most famous for. But in all models, the value must first exist, prove to be repeatable, and effectively communicated before support is given.

Donors demand proof of impact, which is a fancy way of saying they want to make sure your organization produces measurable, positive value to its cause. Purposeful consumers expect social or environmental responsibility in addition to the product or service they are purchasing. Impact investors want a dual ROI - financial returns along with social or environmental impact. In each of these scenarios, value is exchanged for support. A simple equation, but one that requires purpose in action, not just in aspiration.

Because your impact (your value) must be communicated before supporters take action, social purpose brands cannot simply rely on their mission or cause to speak for itself. Like all brands, social purpose brands must have a clear brand strategy, compelling messaging, strong positioning, and consistent marketing & communications to earn meaningful attention and support.

So, what can you do as a social purpose brand to navigate the overcrowded purpose-driven ecosystem and drive positive action from your supporters?

  1. Don’t downplay your purpose just because purpose-driven marketing campaigns by Fortune 500 brands are muddying the social purpose waters.
  2. Instead, double down on your social mission, communicate what makes your approach to impact unique, and do the hard work to create and communicate your value to society.
  3. Nurture and deepen your relationship with your supporters by showing them, consistently, how their support leads to positive outcomes and progress toward achieving your mission.

You’ll know it’s working when this becomes a positive upward spiral, where impact leads to value, value is communicated to existing and new supporters, supporters become evangelists, and their support allows your organization to scale its impact.

Remember, your social purpose is core to your DNA. It is an authentic differentiator, but it’s not a brand strategy that can compete in today’s market on its own. Be sure that your brand strategy includes more than just your social purpose and your mission, or profit-driven brands could impede your path to impact.

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