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Cause marketing: Does every brand need to pull a Dove?

UK marketing publication The Drum has an interesting discussion about the level of authenticity and commitment required from brands who hope to leverage brand purpose or cause marketing activities in order to build customer loyalty and engagement. Can every brand be a Dove, building the brand around a compelling and all-encompassing passion point? And perhaps more importantly, does every brand need to be a Dove? The answer to incorporating social purpose into your brand may be to surrender control to those who know best -your best customers.

By Rick Ferguson
 
Here's an introductory money quote from Endomol Shine executive James Hayr on the level of commitment required to embrace "brand purpose" as a marketing platform:
 
"Speaking at The Drum's Future of Marketing event...James Hayr, head of global sales at Endemol Shine, suggested that those looking to emulate the success of a brand like Dove are often underestimating the 'huge amount of authenticity and degree of commitment' needed to succeed.
 
"'The thing about making it work is having a long-term commitment, because if you just turn up and then disappear, particularly around areas that people really care about, it won't work. You must be in it for the long-haul. You have to add something to [that cause] rather than just reflect it,' he said."
The discussion that ensued at the Drum event found executives divided on the importance of a brand cause, with arguments falling along one of two trajectories:
 
Consumers are indifferent: The lack of long-term fallout from serious PR and ethical lapses by major brands reveals that consumers don't spend nearly as much time thinking about brand purpose as we marketers think they do. This line of thinking was espoused by TotallyMoney CMO Nathan Levi, who said:
 
"I don't think all brands need to align themselves with something cultural or political or ethical, they need to market their brands. If it genuinely suits them to be political or ethical then that is fine, but I don't agree all brands need to be a Dove. That is a one off in a way. Very often people don't care that much. Often brands need to shut up."
Brands have a responsibility to give back: This view holds that, even if consumers often aren't proactively aware of a brand's social purpose stance, brands owe it to themselves, and their customers, to be socially responsible. This view was expressed by MasterCard executive Guillaume Conteville, who said that "companies still have a social and moral obligation to put something back into the communities they're a part of. We must want to make a positive impact. Either you have a business that does something that is positive or you don't."
 
Even Unilever's Dove brand of feminine beauty products, which has enjoyed nearly universal praise for its "Real Beauty" campaign, stepped in it recently by releasing a series of differently-shaped shampoo bottles to reflect the multitude of female body types. The move backfired, with the brand finding itself ridiculed on social media as critics called the campaign "patronizing." The lesson: there's a fine line between embracing social purpose and overreaching for it.
 
So what do you do if you don't have the interest or the wherewithal to go the Dove route, but still want to give something back? One way is to give the choice of social purpose to your customers - to give them control. For example: several years ago, American Express operated a successful social purpose promotion called the Members Project, which allowed Membership Reward members to nominate their pet causes and charitable endeavors for funding. Members voted on their favorites, and Amex rewarded the top vote-getters with over a million dollars in funding.
 
The promotion was wildly successful for American Express as a promotional and public relations play, and wildly popular with Membership Rewards members. Rather than stake their brand on a single cause, Amex allowed its members to engage with the brand through their individual sense of social purpose.
 
This example isn't to say that you need to fund your own version of the Members Project. But you can provide a range of options - perhaps through a points donation mechanism in your loyalty program - that allow members to connect your brand with  the causes they care about most. It's another way to demonstrate loyalty to your best customers - and do well by doing good.
 
Rick Ferguson is CEO and Editor in Chief of the Wise Marketer Group.