Why Brands Interested In Social Good Need To Go Beyond The PSA

A look at the Fast Company Innovation Festival panel on the difference between cause marketing and purpose.

Why Brands Interested In Social Good Need To Go Beyond The PSA
[Photos: Joeun Lee for Fast Company]

When it comes to doing social good, many brands, agencies, and marketers see their primary contribution as one of awareness–using their powers of creative persuasion to draw attention to a given issue or cause. But during a Fast Company Innovation Festival session on Thursday, Johannes Leonardo cofounder and CCO Leo Premutico, Spotify’s director of social impact Kerry Steib, and Nicole Decario, managing director of operations and special projects for the Bezos Family Foundation, talked about the need and potential for brands and creatives to make a more meaningful, long-term social agenda part of their overall mission and identity, and why it’s good for business.


Earlier this year Johannes Leonardo and the Bezos Family Foundation launched Vroom, an initiative that uses brands and product packaging to provide low-income families with tips and tools to help foster healthy brain development in children in the critical years from birth to age five.

Launching Vroom was a five-year project between the agency and the foundation, and Premutico says that’s not typical given the fast-faster-fastest approach so common in marketing. “These things take time, but sometimes our industry isn’t necessarily set up to judge things that take time,” he said.

For Steib, there’s a unique opportunity in establishing the social impact agenda at a relatively young brand. “I’m very lucky in that I work at a company that’s starting from scratch,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of historical causes or programs or causes that we’ve supported, so it allows us to survey the landscape and say, what are going to be the most meaningful programs and partnerships that we can create?”

Over the last couple of years, Spotify has teamed with Starkey Hearing Foundation in Puerto Princesa, Philippines, to provide hearing aids to the hearing impaired, as well as building a recording studio at an Austin middle school after SXSW.

“One of the things I love to see that’s changing is the idea that the social impact work and the everyday brand work can really work together simultaneously–it doesn’t have to be these separate things or operate in separate parts of the organization,” says Steib. “Social impact and what you do to change the world can really start with what you’re good at as a brand [overall]. To me that’s one of the most interesting things, in how this is becoming a bigger part of the everyday conversation of consumers and how they choose their products, but also for companies and how they are choosing to shape the legacy they want to have.”

One distinction the panel made was the difference between cause marketing and purpose. “Cause marketing often is a brand getting involved in a cause, but if they can see an alignment that is really on point and can take it that step further, that’s when things can really get done,” said Premutico. “And we can see in things like Unilever’s sustainable living plan, that more brands are thinking about purpose beyond cause marketing.”


But that kind of investment takes time, patience, and corporate courage because, as the old saying goes, “a principle is only a principle if it costs you something.” The panel pointed to CVS Health’s decision to stop selling cigarettes in 2014. The company could’ve made a simple gesture like encouraging consumers to make a donation to the American Cancer Society at the cash register, but instead chose the longer play. The move initially hurt the company’s bottom line, but it also made a significant dent in U.S. cigarette sales.

Decario said moves like that should become more common as not only are consumers demanding more purpose from the brands they’re buying from, but it’s something employees are increasingly looking for in employers. Premutico added that smart companies are getting ahead of the curve, to be prepared for when consumers not only like their brands to have a broader purpose or contribution but expect it. “The more examples out there in the world of brands doing impactful work, the more pressure there will be on others to do the same, and accelerate that expectation,” said Premutico. “Fear is a very powerful motivator.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.