Purpose is the New Brand

Social purpose is the new brand. Want proof? Of the 18 full-page ads in the September 3-9, 2011 issue of The Economist, 9 are conventional brand adverts showcasing the functional excellence of the company.  The other 9 are adverts showcasing the social purpose idea or commitment of the company.  The companies that advertise in the world’s leading financial cum world politics magazine, designed for the upper echelons of power and influence, understand that it is their social purpose that will make them distinctive and interesting.

It is interesting to examine a few of these ads in detail and how social purpose is becoming the new brand. 

BMW has a double-page spread that showcases the discussion BMW has launched on Innovation and Technology.  Not an ad about the performance qualities of the cars, this is a pronouncement of how BMW is hosting evenings where guests are “asked to explore their worlds and how they saw macro issues impacting technology innovation”.  Moving beyond conventional brand advertising, BMW is presenting itself as a champion and host of encouraging technology and innovation.  Aligned with their business expertise and interests, yes.  Important cultural and social issue, yes.  Point one:  social issues are now business issues and warrant corporate attention.

Shell’s full page ad opens with the header “Let’s clean Feng’s clothes with cleaner energy”, followed by a description of Shell’s commitment to natural gas, cleaner energy and ultimately their aspiration of “trying to build a better energy future”.   Point two:  for the companies that are in the most criticized -- and critical -- industries, being the champion of environmentally sustainable solutions is essential.

Siemens full-page ad about their public transportation systems is framed as providing “answers for mobility” that help create more jobs and make it possible for people to get to those jobs. Why?  Because as the ad states, “mobility is more than just transportation”.  The ad comes complete with a brief description of what has been accomplished in Charlotte, North Carolina:  a 20-year initiative designed to “move people and attract businesses in a way that’s also good for the environment”.  Siemens is making it clear that they are committed to a triple bottom line in the work they do – good for the people, the planet, and the business.  Point three:  building human communities is good for people and for business.

Southern Company’s full-page ad opens with the header “Idea Power.  We’re tapping into the most powerful resource on earth – the human mind”.  Committed to generating a new kind of energy that will be sustainable for generations, Southern Company knows that the business they are really in is human ideas and ingenuity.  Point four:  excellent functionality is built and created by human beings so supporting human thinking and creativity is essential for business.

And then the Qatar Foundation has a full-page ad introducing us to Nadia Merchants, who is a medical student.  The Qatar Foundation is creating the opportunities and proper conditions for women like Nadia to study, discover and excel, making Qatar a “centre of knowledge that is helping the entire world move forward”.  The way to make Qatar the world centre they want it be is to support individuals in their endeavors; or as the tagline tells us – “unlocking human potential”.   Point five:  success and respect is earned when you champion people.

In comparison, there is the full-page ad for Verizon that tells the reader how Verizon offers the “best wireless service in the world”.  Functional excellence is why we are meant to believe in Verizon, with a small note of support by the publication Global Traveler.  Point six:  functionality is necessary but not sufficient to earn our attention, interest or respect.

Somewhat more retrograde is the full-page ad for Koran Air:  a gorgeous, long-legged beauty stands atop a picture of Incheon Airport with the tagline line – “Experience global networking on a whole new scale”.  Asserting their superior service, Korean Air believes that a beautiful woman and a functional description of who they are will entice us.  That may be true, but point seven is that enticement is short-lived, while true purpose is enduring.

And finally there is the full-page ad for Mandarin Oriental; a picture of Christian Louboutin, the shoe designer-maker famous for his red soles, we are told “He’s a fan” followed by the fan icon that is the Mandarin Oriental.  They believe that we will want to stay at their hotels because the famous and well heeled do.  Again, while this might trigger my “be famous by association” aspirations, I know it to be false.  Lesson eight is that delusion may be an effective attention getter, but it will not make me genuinely loyal.

The overarching conclusion of this summary of a few of the 18 ads in The Economist is that social purpose has penetrated at least the marketing approaches of leading global companies.  They recognize that to stand out, be respected, and be distinctive they need to showcase a purpose deeper than their functionality.  Purpose is the source of attraction and bonding.

What we hope is that these companies also understand that they actually need to be committed to issues or approaches that have the potential to make the world a better place.  Because when they make the world more inhabitable for humans, when they support the social livelihoods of people they create healthier conditions for their own success.  

Indeed, social purpose is not just the new brand; it is now the source of enduring business success.