Using Social Purpose to Boost Brand Engagement

February 21, 2022

Why Social Purpose is an Essential Next Step for your Brand Strategy

Social purpose is the use of business principles to help make a positive impact on society in a way which generates long-term growth for the business.  Unlike corporate social responsibility (CSR), in which companies and their staff carry out activities which can make a difference to other people’s lives, social purpose aligns social issues with the core values of the business to drive business results.

This article explores how social purpose can boost brand engagement and explains why identifying a social purpose should be an essential next step as part of your brand strategy.

Social Purpose and Brand Engagement

Following the recession of the late 2000s two key trends emerged; although understandably people tightened their belts showing price sensitivity across some categories, perhaps more surprisingly at the same time people also showed a willingness to pay a higher price for brands that improved their wellbeing and had a positive impact on society.

The Meaningful Brands Index has charted brand engagement since 2006.  Back then it found that people wouldn’t care if 74% of brands they used every day disappeared, which demonstrates how many brands have failed to connect emotionally with their consumers.  In 2017 the same Index demonstrated that the rewards for connecting meaningfully are huge, with those that achieve meaningfulness outperforming the stock market by 206% over a 10-year period and on average a ninefold increase in share of wallet.

This is a trend which is still with us today; brands which have a social purpose will gain traction over brands that don’t.  Millennials are spending $600 each year on charitable causes and consider a company’s social and environmental commitments before deciding where to work.

Social Purpose in Action

Looking at brands that have successfully engaged people through their social purpose shows the breadth of what social purpose means and how important it is to align the brand with the target customer’s motivations.  It also shows the impact that it can have on customer loyalty and profitability.

C’est Qui La Patron (which translates to Who’s the Boss) is a brand that was launched a few years ago and is a collaboration between milk activists, small milk producers and the Carrefour supermarket chain.  In a move to generate fairer prices for the producers, the brand undertook research to understand the qualities consumers were looking for in an agricultural product and how much they would be willing to pay for it.  The result of the project is a new milk product that the consumer pays on average 8% more for.  Customers are willing to pay more as they know who is producing their milk, how it is produced and what it contains.  The producers receive on average 25% more, making the trade a far fairer one.

Unilever has for the last six years focused on building brands which aim to deliver social or environmental purpose.  This is part of their corporate strategy which is to achieve the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan goals.  A great example of how this is at the core of what they do is the new Sunlight product launched in South Africa.  Sunlight is a new hand wash laundry powder, which uses SmartFoam technology to break down suds faster.  In drought-affected South Africa, where women still do the majority of laundry by hand, halving the number of rinses required to wash clothes has made a real difference, freeing up their time as well as saving water.   Collectively the brands that Unilever term as Sustainable Living have delivered over 60% of the company’s total growth, up from 46% last year, and have grown more than 50% faster than the rest of the business in 2016.

Closer to home, German Veterinary Clinic (GVC) in Abu Dhabi have put social purpose at the heart of what they do, not for commercial gain but because they really care about animals.  The clinic is focused on treating small animals and specialises in cats with a number of tailored services including separate waiting and treatment rooms for cats, to keep stress levels to a minimum. Many of the team also have specialist feline qualifications.  A natural activity for the clinic, in a city which has a large street cat population, has been to run monthly Trap Neuter Release days (TNR) offering appointments for street cats at reduced rates as well as running adoption schemes for the animals.  A further extension of their philanthropic nature has been to go into the local community and educate children on how to care for their pets in communities where pet ownership may not be a cultural norm. The work GVC does comes from a genuine love of animals and demonstrates that you don’t need to be a global brand to take the lead on social purpose, it is relevant for every brand no matter the size.

Becoming a Social Purpose Business

As this is something that every company can do, how and where do you start?  The key to social purpose is to make sure that it is authentic, that it means something to the company and comes to life at every touchpoint.  This is a step change from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which is often a bolt-on department and is rarely expected to generate business results. Although CSR teams have a clearly defined objective and undertake worthwhile activities, this isn’t always aligned to core business activities.

There are two ways to identify your social purpose:

  • Follow the C’est Qui La Patron team and start from a research perspective, which is a robust base for decision making and enables you to align your proposition to your customer’s needs.
  • Start from what your brand, product or service provides as Unilever and GVC have done. What is critical is that the social purpose you identify meets customer needs, is authentic and is core to everything you do.

Social purpose must therefore be part of the brand positioning, and driven by corporate strategy, led by the leadership team and board who ensure that it is something that every department in the business is focusing on.  It must flow through the corporate culture.

With social purpose identified and ingrained in the brand strategy, the next step is to ensure that it flows through to the marketing strategy and that it is embedded into communications and touchpoints throughout the customer journey.  By developing consistent, drum beat communications around your social purpose, customers will understand and engage with it. A credible social purpose not only engages consumers, it also attracts talent, collaborators and more, whilst adding measurable value to the bottom line.

Have You Identified Your Social Purpose Yet?

At Acorn Strategy, an award-winning Marketing and Communications Agency, we help our clients to grow from the smallest of acorns to mighty oak trees. We unravel the complexities of the market and competition to create strategy and plans that optimise your performance.  To find out more about our innovative strategy-led approach, including content marketing strategy, planning and creation, email