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Social Purpose is now a Necessity

25 March 2013

If this prolonged recession has taught us one positive lesson, it’s that we no longer pay much heed to organisations without a business philosophy or demonstrable values. They may get past us on price or as the flavor of the moment, but they won’t last unless they mean something to us.

From an organisational viewpoint, knowing what you stand for and conveying that to the world are no longer intellectual exercises for the touchy-feely fringes. They’re a necessity. Brands have learned that they only really exist in people’s minds – the products and services they sell can readily be bought elsewhere. Increasingly, people are buying the ‘idea’. Your values are a competitive advantage. Without them, you have no sustainable future.

Organisations have talked about ‘added value’ – all that stuff around going the extra kilometre for their clients. Nobody stopped to ask the question, ‘Well, why is that value not integral to your offer in the first place?’ Which is probably why organisations will be reticent about ‘added purpose’, fearful of a similar question. Yet, in 2013, mainstream brands are going beyond price, place, promotion and product to ask serious questions about their philosophy and values.

Facilitated by the popularity and reach of social media, this organisational look inside is driven by demand. Consumers have enhanced expectations that brands should offer more than a product at a certain price. Social media is essential to engaging people with brand purpose and to help shape it as part of an ongoing dialogue. Its transparency means brands have to offer a more holistic reason for people to choose them. In turn, investing in identifying and communicating this purpose opens up business opportunities. Look at the unlikely partnership between M&S and Oxfam, collaborating on the clothes ‘schwopping’ initiative. Unlikely, because not tried before. But a very purposeful partnership based on the values of both organisations.

When organisations work to understand what they’re really here for, it can change the way they operate, how they do business. Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign may have looked like marketing spin to some people, but it carried a message straight from the heart of the company. Patagonia is that very rare company that realises just how much it struggles to be sustainable. The jacket may well have been long-lasting, with 60% recycled materials. Yet, in reality, it cost more than it was selling for – by this, the company meant not just the price it was charging customers, but the fact that manufacturing the jacket used enough water for 45 people and generated 20 times its weight in CO2 emissions. Viewed holistically, this jacket is unsustainable.

Examples such as the Patagonia jacket pose more questions than it seems possible to answer, given our current capitalist paradigm. We know this model no longer works, but we still go for growth using the same model. Yet, if we only went back to our purpose, our reason for being, our founding principles, we might find we have all the values we need to make the positive difference we set out to achieve, before complexity set in.

Forster has spent 16 years reminding organisations of all shapes and sizes that brand behaviour and communications based on authentic values will make all the difference in the long-term. That’s a social purpose we’ll continue to stand by.