Why marketing with a social purpose needs thought.

Michael Brunt, CMO and MD of Circulation at The Economist, on the need for authenticity in feel-good marketing strategies.

Increasingly, marketers are starting to hang their brand strategy on social purpose; the idea that the product contributes to a greater good.

Nils Leonard, former Creative Officer at Grey London advertising, has launched a biodegradable ‘eco’ coffee pod to help combat the instant landfill created by regular plastic containers. A purchase with a social purpose – you can’t put a price on that, right?

But do social purpose brands have to come with a premium price point – fairtrade, admittedly, is costly – and is the perceived value-exchange sufficient to warrant the pricing or indeed the brand effort?

When lingering in the frozen food aisle, Ben and Jerry hope their brand feels just that bit ‘nicer’ than competitors. They are, after all, the brand who collaborated with MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, who offered free scoops to the protesters of Occupy Wall Street and purport to have a ‘social mission’ with the promise to promote Fairtrade ingredients and ban GMO’S. The consumer can enjoy the indulgence of Cookie Dough with additional karmic brownie points without having to leave the sofa.

The benefit of marketing with a social conscience is a message that goes beyond the practical purposes of product in a crowded marketplace and creates difference.

In an interesting shift in responsibility, companies are being called upon to do the work that governments are no longer doing – effectively or at all. Take Black Rock investment, the world’s largest asset manager, who created a manifesto in 2015 to lead ‘impact investing’. A special fund backs projects with a social mission like green energy and rejects any opportunities to do with products like tobacco, alcohol and weapons.

While the move towards such brand values should be applauded, hanging a marketing strategy on social purpose should be undertaken with care. Consumers have a finely tuned intuition when it comes to picking up on inauthenticity. As a marketer, even if you think you have a genuine case for a do-good campaign, the risk of people thinking the message is disingenuous is undeniable.

Consumers have been burnt before. In the VW emissions scandal, the automotive company cooked their diesel emissions with special software to improve results when being tested. The US Environmental Protection Agency prosecuted them for violation of the Clean Air Act and they subsequently lost US $10 billion in brand value.

Perhaps the ‘efficient, mindful and genuine’ keywords that are included in their six core values aren’t sitting as well with public perception as they might have hoped. A vision that reads, ‘We are a globally leading provider of sustainable mobility,’ is undoubtedly a positive one but was it the right strategy to align themselves with green energy, given the nature of the scandal?

The reason we support the Burnet News Club – the schools programme run by The Economist Educational Foundation, a charity set up from inside The Economist – is because it’s very close to the core of what we represent as a company. The Foundation’s brand values, for example, include valuing facts and critical thinking and being committed to lasting impact. We exist (since 1843) to fight for social and liberal progress. The Economist helps our readers navigate what’s going on in the world and their future in it. A populace unable to interpret and absorb current affairs simply won’t progress.

Many young people are engaged with current affairs but need better opportunities to discuss them. It gives disadvantaged children thinking and communication skills, the tools to form independent opinions and the confidence to express and debate them. Ultimately that’s good for them and good for society.

In practical terms, The Economist lends its journalists to write content explaining complex world issues to young people, which is delivered by trained teachers in state schools across the UK. The teachers lead topical discussions which develop students’ thinking skills, and between these sessions young people discuss and debate their ideas on a dedicated online Hub.

They also have the opportunity to enjoy specially programmed theatre like the documentary piece, Justice. Each year, the most engaged students – students who might have started a conversation with their local MP, for example, are rewarded at an awards event at Buckingham Palace.

Importantly, we don’t shy away from provocative subjects and on February 2nd we are hosting a live immersive event in which schools help a fictional first-time voter decide between an anti-immigration and pro-immigration MP.

“Discussions about current affairs can be a fantastic way to enable young people to understand the issues affecting their lives and develop the skills to empathise with different perspectives,” says Emily Evans, Chief Executive of The Economist Educational Foundation. “The Burnet News Club gives students opportunities to have informed, open-minded discussions with their peers in different communities across the country.”

In terms of brand strategy, we don’t shout about it. Investors like it because it’s a genuine campaign, already doing great work, that’s naturally aligned with our core values. The Foundation also produce very detailed impact reports; the results are vigorously surveyed and quantified, which is advisable for any brand aligning a marketing strategy with social purpose.

We don’t claim to have a brand that will save the planet – just inform it – and if your yoghurt or a spin dryer says it can, be careful not to turn off consumers with more brains than to believe it.

If you think your company would be interested in joining with The Economist to support the Burnet News Club, please get in touch via the website, www.burnetnewsclub.com.