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:

A number of these dimensions are especially relevant in the new, purpose-driven world that is hungry for participation and real change. They can be affected positively through applying selected engagement tactics from the Social Change Compass pictured above. Success stories of brands that have started to crack the code of social engagement by applying those tactics serve as a showcase for the potential uplift for a brand's strength:

Change Perception | Tactic: Attend Events | Benefit to Brand: Authenticity

How can the brand and its consumers help shift destructive cultural norms?

In 2004, Dove launched the provocative Campaign for Real Beauty to spark a global conversation about the definition and perception of beauty in our society. In 2010, Dove expanded the campaign into the Movement for Self-Esteem and engaged its consumers around a bold, new vision for the brand. With the movement, Dove created an online platform and organized hundreds of events that convened thousands of mothers and daughters across the United States over one weekend to open an intergenerational conversation about self-esteem. In partnership with Girl Scouts of America, Girls Inc., and Boys & Girls Club of America, Dove developed a set of educational tools including "A Girl's Guide to the Digital World." The movement has supported programs and activities that have engaged more than seven million girls to date. Earlier this year, Dove released its latest endeavor in pushing society to confront its cultural norms around beauty: Dove Real Beauty Sketches. In its first month, the video attracted more than 50 million views. With a re-energized public conversation on self-esteem, can this earned interest and awareness be transferred to changes in behavior and action?

Change Behavior | Tactic: Volunteer | Benefit to Brand: Clarity

How can the engagement of employees be a demonstration of the change the brand seeks to have with its customers?

In 2011, IBM marked its 100-year anniversary. When thinking about the most meaningful way in which it could pay tribute to this memorable event while also helping people understand how they contribute to the brand's purpose of creating a "Smarter Planet," IBM decided to embark on a "Year of Service." 365 days of employee volunteerism that involved an impressive 300,000 of IBM's global workforce; thereby making it the largest corporate volunteer event in history. In doing so, IBM engaged and motivated its people in an unprecedented way, and unmistakably clarified among its people what the brand they are working for is all about. Can the commitment of a global network of volunteers be instrumental in raising the standards of corporate service?

Change Rules | Tactic: Sign Petition | Benefit to Brand: Presence

How can activism help raise the external visibility and perception of a brand?

Purpose incubated and launched All Out, a global LGBT movement, in 2011.Today, with 1.6 million members in almost 200 different countries, All Out runs multilingual, real-time campaigns to inform, educate, and engage the public. All Out has successfully organized to stop the "Kill the Gays" bill in Uganda, defend the immigration rights of bi-national same sex couples, and many other oppressive policies through the combined tactics of email petitions, grassroots organizing and social media amplifications. During the summer of 2012, in Cameroon, Jean-Claude Roger was sentenced to jail for three years for sending the following text to another man: "I love you very much." In response, All Out launched a user-generated campaign urging members to sign a petition and post images of themselves with the text message Roger was sentenced for. The best submissions were then repurposed and distributed across social media. The campaign raised awareness of LGBT criminalization in Cameroon in an innovative way, resulting in over 180K petition signatures and sending a signal to Cameroon that the world was watching. How can the presence of the All Out brand and the power of the movement be used to change the perceptions and behaviors that entrench our society's deepest inequalities across the globe?

Change Perception | Tactic: Compelling Content | Benefit to Brand: Relevance

How can participation raise awareness for the brand and its defined purpose?

Factory farms are compromising the quality of our food system. The Chipotle brand aspires to shift society's eating habits and the structure of our food system through endorsing "Food With Integrity." By positioning the brand on the forefront of educating consumers about "good" food, responsible sourcing, and transparent supply chains, it is successfully tapping into the ethically aware Millennial demographic. Chipotle had a breakthrough moment in 2011, when it decided to launch an animated two-minute video on YouTube, creating content that people could actively share across social media. To date, this tactic has earned the brand not only more than seven million views of the original movie, but an estimated 300 million media impressions. Chipotle used user engagement to not only create a movement of loyal brand ambassadors, but to change how people think about and eat fast food—making the brand highly relevant to a health-conscious audience. Did it pay off economically? An estimated 165 to 180 new restaurants in 2013 would suggest it did. Could customer loyalty be used to build healthier, more sustainable agricultural supply chains?

Change Behavior | Tactic: Pledge Publicly | Benefit to Brand: Understanding

How can consumer participation help consumers understand what a brand's purpose is?

Understanding that a person who sends text messages while driving is 23 times more likely to be involved in a car crash, AT&T has defined a long-term commitment to putting an end to texting and driving. With young drivers among the highest numbers of victims of terrible accidents, AT&T has particularly raise targeted raising awareness among teens. The "It Can Wait" initiative now applies a very impactful tactic: it asks drivers proactively to sign a pledge, stating their personal commitment to not text while driving. This bold move has helped people understand that the brand deeply cares about its customers and their safety. With a committed core of more than one million people having signed the pledge, how can we build the movement to end texting while driving for good?

Change Systems | Tactic: Collaborative Tools | Benefit to Brand: Authenticity

Sustainable economic development requires a pool of entrepreneurs who are equipped to build their businesses with a social goal in mind. Virgin Unite, founded by Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, was created to harness the potential of business to drive positive change in the world. One example of the innovative way Virgin has put its values to practice is the Branson Centres for Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean and South Africa. The Branson Centre's goal is to support entrepreneurs in building strong local economies that are sustainable, socially and environmentally conscious, and vibrant. The initiative not only reflects Virgin Unite's long-term goal of fostering entrepreneurs to spark change, but also ties into Virgin's bigger desire to create a thriving sustainable tourism industry that supports, not destroys, local communities. The aligned goals of the foundation and the company create a sense of true authenticity that consumers crave. The collaborative efforts across Virgin help reinforce these values both internally and externally. As the Branson Centre platform continues to cultivate visionary entrepreneurs, is there a role for consumers to participate and support their success?

Change Behavior | Tactic: Purchase | Benefit to Brand: Differentiation

How can a participation strategy help set a brand apart from its competitors?

Warby Parker, a New York-based retail startup, has a unique business model. It offers a convenient way to purchase eyeglasses, cutting costs by selling directly to consumers. By producing and designing its own glasses, Warby Parker can sell each pair for $95, including prescription lenses made of polycarbonate plastic. In contrast, typical lenses sell for $300. Not only do consumers feel good about spending less, but they get the added benefit of contributing to a good cause. Warby Parker follows the buy-one-give-one model pioneered by TOMS. For every purchase, the company donates a pair of eyeglasses to non-profits like VisionSpring, which distributes glasses to people in need. Warby Parker hit its first-year sales targets within the first three weeks and sold out of its top 15 styles in its first month, with an additional 20,000 people on a waitlist. To date, Warby Parker has donated more than 250,000 pairs of glasses to people in need. Having proven a disruptive, mission-driven business model, can Warby Parker customers help build a market for affordable eyeglasses worldwide?

A new social imperative, raising expectations and opening up exciting opportunities for brands

Brands, the stories they tell and allow us to share, have to enable us to use our agency to drive social change. Market disruption, new consumer expectations, and changing behavior patterns always present challenges. But instead of creating a feeling of discomfort, this new rallying cry for participation should be seen as the long-awaited call for brands to play an even more substantial part in people's lives. Brands have the power to change the world. Now purpose-driven brands can wholeheartedly tap into an army of enthusiastic supporters who want to be personally invested in a brand's social purpose, and reward those brands that allow them to participate in the journey.

Dominik Prinz is a Strategy Director in Interbrand's New York office.

Justin Stokes is a Strategy Director in Purpose's New York office.