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Can a brand survive without social purpose?

Corporates should collaborate with charities to grow CSR policies into social impact strategies  

CSR has (thankfully) largely moved on from the tick-box exercise of the noughties, and today many corporates make a measurable difference to their communities. But for some there’s still a way to go. Do you recycle? Of course! What impact does your supply chain have on the environment? Oh, minimal. OK – how’s that pay gap coming on…? ­

A solid CSR programme will forever be a worthwhile part of business life that staff, customers and other stakeholders can feel proud of, but will it really change anything in society? Does that even matter to your business? It should – the Ipsos 2017 Global Trends survey found that 68% of people believe that companies who make a positive difference will be the most successful brands of the future.

Consumers have come to expect more of corporates. Of course every business should be operating responsibly and sustainably – that’s just good manners. It’s easy to be comfortable in a CSR strategy, but it takes more to legitimately marry profit and purpose – it’s not all about money, it’s about action. A brand with social purpose pushes ahead in its field to solve a problem that strikes a chord with its customers, hooking us into its loyalty loop as we join in on the journey to change.  

Well-known players like TOMS (committed to making an impact beyond the well-respected One for One initiative) incorporated social purpose into their business strategy from the start. But it is possible for established brands to embrace a step-change – just look at Unilever, which reported that 60% of its growth in 2016 was from its ‘sustainable living’ brands. The UN Sustainable Development Goals have also helped to provide corporates with inspiration for measurable aims.

A social purpose needs to be authentic and achievable, and corporates must align values from the core. It’s been an inspirational year of collective activism following considerable political and social upheaval, so speak to customers – what concerns them? What are they trying to change?

Then – what concrete steps can you make towards that vision? How can you realistically make (and measure) change?

Of course, charities have been ‘doing’ social purpose this whole time. There are countless causes that are supported by the third sector, superb campaigners who are relentless in their ability to deliver proven change. But corporates are unrestricted by the pressure of the bucket shake. Better collaboration between the third and private sectors is the key to real progress.  

As a charity – is it time you reviewed that corporate partnership? Are they honestly helping you to reach your purpose? Can you help them to find theirs? Is it a lack of funding, or a lack of belief that holds us back?

No matter where on the social purpose spectrum you sit, communicating a social message effectively can be complex – but these are all questions that socially aware communicators can help to answer. Good communications can make or break your ability to achieve your purpose – maintaining momentum, growing a groundswell of support and campaigning at influential levels.

A social purpose is no tag-on, it should not need spin, and those who simply try to piggyback on issues without thought-through strategies will be exposed as tone-deaf. But companies that get it right will reap the rewards. Now is the time to prioritise purpose – without it, brands will survive, but they seem unlikely to thrive.

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