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Ideals Can No Longer Be Manufactured: What Does This Mean for Brands and Advertisers?

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Unilever claims to be doing a lot in the CSR space and isn’t shy about promoting its efforts.

In the last few years we’ve seen plenty of evidence that brands, large and small, are at least experimenting with social initiatives. Doing rather than saying. Striving for purpose along with profit. Okay, the emphasis may be on the profit part, but at least we’re seeing some positive momentum.

Mega brands have given us Pepsi Refresh and Small Business Saturday. Smaller players have launched programs like Common Threads (Patagonia) and Tom’s recent Marketplace. Why, even the big bad Bank of America is getting in on the action with its SuperBowl AIDS Fundraiser featuring Bono.

Research from the likes of Edelman and TBWA confirms that consumers across the globe are more likely to support and recommend brands with a social purpose. Nearly all consumers — 87 percent — think that business should place equal weight on both social and business issues. But only a small percentage — 28 percent — believe that business is doing its share. Clearly there’s plenty of room to do more.

In a presentation (below) to one of my classes at Boston University last week, Kelsey Hodgkin, one of the smartest strategists I’ve ever worked with, framed the current advertising landscape in light of both this emerging trend and the opportunity. Here’s what we learned and discussed.

In the past, as McCann Erickson’s century-old tagline suggested, great advertising gave us the truth well told. At its most powerful, advertising became a cultural force by taking a brand’s character, then expressing it as an ideal in a way that shaped the desires of society. Note, of course that there’s a lot of liberty one can take with the truth. For example, Marlboro made us all smokers by taking its truth (smoking is a manly habit) and laddering it up to the most basic American ideal (the independent, rugged American male portrayed as a cowboy). Ralph Lauren did something similar, albeit less harmful, with a manufactured truth that made us believe we could all be Wasps and socialize with each other in Southhampton.

And for years, at its best, advertising always did more than sell a product. Look no further than Apple, Nike, VW, Coca Cola or Master Card to realize just how much a great campaign could inform or even inspire a cultural ideal.

But according to Kelsey, along with others like Simon Mainwaring, that’s no longer enough. Events like 911, Hurricane Sandy, and The Great Recession, along with its aftermath of increasing income inequality have combined to challenge our traditional definition of ideals. Was Master Card really enabling emotional memories at a baseball game with our kids? Or coercing us into taking on credit we couldn’t really afford?

Add the impact of technology and social media, which has led to a proliferation of content, reduced attention on the part of consumers, and even an increased pressure on business to be more forthcoming and transparent and brands have to be in the business of proving their ideals in everything they make,say and do. Which implies they better have some. Manufacturing them ideals has become, or soon will be, near impossible.

That doesn’t mean we profits are bad. Or even that they aren’t a primary objective. But rather that there has to be a sweet spot where the profit and purpose circles intersect. Right now we see expressions that include IBM that’s delivering data that helps cities be smarter. Cheerios helping families connect around mealtime. Coca Cola experimenting with promoting cross cultural unity. Shinola building an entire operation around bringing jobs back to Detroit.

Does that affect what we do and how we think as marketers and creators? Absolutely. As Kelsey suggests, it’s time for brands (and their agencies) to: define a long term purpose; marry it with a social need; and create a valuable, shareable experience. Why do you exist? What problem can you solve? How can you innovate to invite participation from your community of users?

Seen any great examples of brand initiatives in this area? Please share.

Related Links

Unilever Project Sunlight


Cheerios Family Breakfast Project

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