The Power of Participation: Delivering on the Promise of a Purpose-Driven Brand
By Dominik Prinz and Justin Stokes
The 21st century consumer has arrived: more informed, paying attention, and ready to take action to improve the world. And just in time. Economic uncertainty, political upheaval, and social unrest are forcing even the most stalwart of business leaders to reassess the role of business in society. We know that businesses can and must do more to create shared value.
At the same time, technology is creating opportunities for people to congregate in numbers never before possible, and collectively solve society's most intractable problems. Brands, as the windows between the consumer and the business, are the platforms for organizing and activating this collective potential. Participation is the next stage of brand strategy.
The next generation of purpose-driven brands and corporate citizenship
Purpose-driven brands must find authentic ways to engage their consumers, to provide them with meaningful, inspiring experiences—empowering them to use their influence to change their world.
We are increasingly demanding brands that pursue a social mission and add meaning to our lives: in a recent study on global consumer attitudes on social purpose, more than half of consumers surveyed (53 percent) cite social purpose as the most important factor in choosing one brand over another one, when quality and price are the same—making it a key driver of preference and brand loyalty. These consumers are already taking action with their money: nearly half (47 percent) of them have bought (at least monthly) a brand that supports a cause, up from one-third of consumers in 2010.
Companies now understand the importance of being a good citizen in order to appeal to a generation that is much more attuned to the role the brand is playing in society. But just "doing good" and eventually telling one's customers about it, no longer cuts it.
The stakes are high. The 'cause' marketing bubble is about to pop as consumers are increasingly holding brands accountable. It's no longer enough to claim to deliver an affordable product responsibly. (See recent campaigns by 38 Degrees and UK Uncut.) Millennials, the pulse of the new consumer culture, are in relentless pursuit of authenticity and agency. They are more informed, increasingly skeptical of 'cause' marketing, and more engaged. With consumer activism on the rise, this poses significant risks for brands that are revealed to be telling a disingenuous story.
The message is clear. Brands must have a point of view on the company's role in society and a clear, authentic strategy to engage its consumers around the vision. Failure to deliver on the promise will risk becoming irrelevant. People want to be—expect to be—engaged. They expect more information, more value, more agency. It's not enough to publish a glossy annual CSR report; consumers want to be active participants with the brand in the pursuit of a compelling vision for change.
A new approach: The brand as a platform for meaningful participation and mass social engagement
Today's most innovative brands are creating opportunities for their customers to meaningfully participate in a shared social purpose, strengthening the relationship and harnessing the potential of the brand as a platform for scaling social impact.
Our ability to connect with each other in new ways has dramatically lowered the barriers for participation and collective action. Today, we can rapidly create new sources of impact by aggregating the actions of many. If your brand is currently championing a social purpose, but isn't engaging its followers directly in the mission in a way that aligns with the brand strategy, you're leaving value on the table—both for society and your business.
While consumer expectations are rising as mobile and social channels spark innovations and new business models, many mature businesses find themselves in the midst of significant change, if not complete disruption. The tendency of established brands facing market change has been to further tighten their grip: control the messaging. Choreograph and stage moments of "public engagement." Avoid open-source campaigns. While a natural reaction, this is at odds with the characteristics and desires of the 21st century consumer. A strategy based on tight control risks compromising the value and relevance of the brand.
Instead, brands must truly commit to the cause and genuinely engage their consumers in ways that create opportunities for them to become a part of the brand and what it stands for. Cultivating this relationship will be critical to staying agile and competitive in an increasingly disruptive environment.
Once a brand has decided to be purpose-driven, committed to mobilizing its assets in genuine pursuit of a social purpose, the key strategic question becomes: How does the company pursue a strategy that both creates business value and delivers on our promise for real, measurable social impact? We believe the answer lies in how it deploys the brand to activate its customers and their communities.
In fact, today's most innovative brands are doing exactly this. In their quest for good, they are creating opportunities for their customers to meaningfully participate in their missions. And they are doing so in ways that connect directly to core parts of the business model, from the early stages of R&D to customer service and aftercare.
Participation as the driver of social change in the 21st century
Mass participation unlocks the power of brands and networks to accelerate social change.
The Purpose approach to mobilizing mass participation around a social mission builds on a cycle of four types of social change: perception change, behavior change, rules change and systems change.
Perception change is about shifting personal and societal viewpoints and cultural norms. As perceptions change, awareness is raised. With heighted awareness, consumers are ready to internalize a new way of living and change behaviors—and then begin to convince others to change their behaviors. A collective groundswell that aggregates new beliefs and behaviors is then able to put pressure on levers of power to change the rules surrounding a social issue. Finally, a change of rules can then create opportunities to reshape the systems upon which our society operates, resulting in innovations in infrastructure and processes for organizing our selves and our resources. In turn, better systems enable us to share information and interact in new ways that have implications for our perceptions and cultural norms.
We know that participation is critical to reaching scale and making real progress, wherever you are in the cycle. However, the most effective tactics for participation will depend on the specific type of change you are looking to evoke.
Purpose's Social Change Compass: Purpose, an organization that builds 21st century movements and social ventures, has developed an approach to mobilizing mass participation toward social change that can guide purpose-driven brands.
Brands that wish to successfully develop and activate a mass participation strategy that delivers business value and social impact must answer three key questions:
1. What type of social change does the brand seek to produce with the world? What impact is expected as a result?
- Change perception: compelling a shift in our hearts and minds around a specific issue.
- Change behavior: motivating a change in our decision-making and consumption habits.
- Change rules: advocating for reforms in market standards, policies and regulations. Change systems: building new platforms for making social change possible.
2. How can the brand inspire and activate its community (consumers) for change? What tactics will give the most leverage?
- To change perception, we need to raise the awareness and collective presence to the issue by creating opportunities for: viewing and sharing content, contributing personal stories, and attending events.
- To change behavior, we need to channel a heightened awareness and readiness to act into meaningful individual actions that lead to a permanent shifting of habits and behaviors: committing to a pledge, purchasing a different product, committing time to a cause, and telling others about why they should change.
- To change the rules, we need to organize individual actors into a collective force: convening and providing channels for advocating for, and donating to, the cause.
- To change systems, we need to build platforms and tools that enable us to interact and share information and resources in new ways: crowdsourcing, open innovation, and adoption of digital tools.
3. What expertise and resources are needed to deliver on the brand's promise? What organizational capacities are required to implement each tactic?
- Storyteller: crafting new narratives, developing compelling content, and spreading the message.
- Motivator: inspiring behavior change, incentivizing new habits, providing channels for individual action.
- Mobilizer: aggregating and amplifying voices, convening partnerships/networks/coalitions.
- Platform Builder: constructing infrastructure, developing processes, connecting parties.
This new approach, driven by an authentic intention to create shared value, has implications for how brands structure and execute their social change activities. Participation is grounded in a dynamic relationship with the customer, deepening over time as the customer participates in different parts of the social change cycle. This requires a close collaboration across departments: sales, marketing, and citizenship/sustainability. To keep everyone moving in the same direction, cross-department metrics need to be actively tracked: brand equity, customer relationships, and societal impact.
If done right, the benefits for brands are manifold
Consumer participation ultimately leads to a stronger brand—and secures future earnings.
By using the Social Change Compass and answering these questions, purpose-driven brands can foster the participation they need to positively affect social change and deliver superior business results.
A purpose-driven participation strategy creates a sense of belonging and forges closer bonds between brands and audiences; it drives choice, legitimacy, and loyalty. It allows a brand to provide meaningful experiences, ones that enable consumers to share stories with their friends, families, and peers.
Perhaps most importantly, such a strategy creates higher societal impact at a faster rate, by tapping the power of networks, as more people are partaking and working towards the same goal, ultimately creating a sense of purpose and collective accountability to shared value.
This represents a powerful way for a purpose-driven brand to deliver on its promise. But how and where exactly does this strengthen a brand at its core and over the long-term?
Interbrand's Brand Strength Approach
Interbrand has developed 10 principles that all strong brands have in common: