When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like my friends. I was enamoured with what they did, the clothes they wore, and the toys they played with – I wanted to be the same as them.

When my mum would call me out on it, I’d say, “…but all my friends are doing it!” And then she’d knowingly reply, in that way that mothers do, “If your friends all jumped off a cliff, would you do the same?”

It was her way of saying: don’t blindly follow the pack. And she was right. We see this type of behaviour everywhere, especially when big trends sweep the market (remember Tamagotchis?). But it’s not just kids that copy their peers – just think of the recent “10 Year Challenge”, or the Harlem Shake. These movements begin with little information attached yet gain momentum quickly, and before we know it, we realise we’re grown adults roaming around in hordes hunting imaginary Pokémon and causing traffic pile-ups in our wake.

The world of brand marketing is no different. Having just come out of 2018, the “Year of Mobile, Video and AI”, we’ve arrived in what’s turning out to be the “Year of Brand Purpose”, a year where brands are looking deep into their souls and associating themselves with the closest topical and/or societal issue they can latch onto.

Isn’t this a good thing? Isn’t it great that the brands we buy from are standing for something? The answer is of course yes. It’s great – but only if it’s done right, with the right intentions, and if the brand is actually incorporating the cause they’re supporting into its business operations.

But in today’s information age where every factoid is only a Google search away and citizen journalism can make or break someone’s reputation in minutes, brands need to be careful about shoehorning themselves into any old retrofitted “purpose”.

For example, here are some brands whose sensational campaigns became overnight hits, but failed to sync these actions up with their operational reality.

Purpose-Led Campaign Reality
State Street revealed the “Fearless Girl” statue in time for IWD 2018 to make a statement about gender equality on Wall Street.State Street pays $5 million to settle federal allegations that female executives were paid less than men in the same positions.
Gillette responds to the #metoo movement and takes a stance against toxic masculinity in a controversial short film.Gillette’s product suite includes pink women’s razors that cost more than the equivalent product for men.
Starbucks’ mission statement is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time.”Starbucks failed to pay U.K. corporate taxes for three years despite sales reaching £1.2 billion (about AU$2.2 billion).

On the flip side, there are some brands that are doing it right. Here are five lessons we can learn from them:

1. Ensure that your brand purpose is deeply rooted in your business model, not just a gimmick for a marketing campaign. The former takes years of planning and foresight and the latter is more of a band aid. Customers can smell the difference.

Purpose Statement Reality
Patagonia: We are in business to save our home planet.Their Worn Wear program not only buys back old Patagonia clothing for recycling, but also offers their customers a lifetime warranty on clothing, including repairs, which encourages customers to keep their Patagonia gear for longer. A great sustainable fashion movement. Since 1985, the outdoor wear brand has donated 1% of sales revenue to the preservation and restoration of natural environments, awarding more than $89m to these causes. In 2016 they also donated 100% of their Black Friday sales to these organisations as a statement against frivolous consumption and consumerism.
Goodwings (a hotel booking site): Travel the world better.Their business model is built on strategic partnerships with a diverse group of charities who work to create a more sustainable future, and forward-thinking companies who recognise the importance of sustainable travel. For every booking, they donate at least a third of their commission to a charity of their customer’s choice.  They rely on social media and their charities to propagate this message, enabling them to save money on marketing. They then pass the savings on by donating the difference to their charities.

2. Use your digital footprint to amplify the good. A study by Unilever[1] showed that one in five people globally feel held back from buying sustainably because (1) they are sceptical about the brand’s purpose-led comms, (2) they are unsure of the product quality, and (3) they think sustainable products cost more.

Brands have a huge influence on our lives, and given the levels of social sharing that occurs today, it’s never been easier for them to get their message across. Patagonia once again set an excellent example here, with the way they use their website to effectively educate their customers about their footprint.

After uncovering a human rights violation by one of their suppliers, Patagonia blew the whistle on themselves, admitting that a breach had occurred and taking active steps to prevent it happening again. This included an online map where users can find an in-depth breakdown of Patagonia’s complete supply chain. This transparency helps customers make an informed purchase decision, and knowing the brand’s efforts are genuine strengthens their support for it.

3. Do not exploit people’s pain for an ad campaign. Ask yourself why you’re backing the chosen cause, and question the role that your communications channels are playing in representing this. Not only will you alienate customers but also offend those that are genuinely affected by the cause or movement.

4. Small but real actions speak louder than big-budget “viral” videos. Take the example of Unilever – it might’ve taken them 10 years from drafting a sustainable development plan to finally get to a place where their sustainable living brands are growing 50% faster than the rest, but it’s a real milestone that certainly wouldn’t have been achieved by releasing a sensationalised short film. Phillips has also been doing this through their product roadmap, which is being continually adapted to better reflect their evolving brand purpose – to improve people’s lives through meaningful innovations. They’re achieving this by diversifying their product offering from TV sets and home cinemas to include health care and well-being products (e.g. for breastfeeding, respiratory care, and even ultrasound products that reduce infant mortality).

5. Not every brand’s purpose needs to be a socially or environmentally responsible one. Understanding your brand’s reason for being is key. This could sometimes just be to entertain customers, encourage our cheat days or bring people together through music. That’s OK. The world needs a bit of both – brands that make us want to be better versions of ourselves, and those that help us indulge our indulgences.

If you’re unsure whether to jump on that next bandwagon, take a moment to ask yourself if you’re just doing something because someone else is. Just like my mother used to ask me: If they jumped off a cliff, would you do the same?

[1] Making Purpose Pay: A Unilever study to inspire sustainable living

Divya Voleti

Divya Voleti is a Strategy Director at iProspect. In her current role, she drives consumer first thinking and works with clients to co-create customer engagement strategies. She is also one of our Innovation Champions, driving collaboration and client success using the widely recognised design thinking framework.