In April 2017, Pepsi released a two-and-half-minute commercial featuring a vague street protest complete with music, dancing, and nondescript signs like “join the conversation.” As the ad reaches its peak, Kendall Jenner abandons a modeling gig to join in—and magically deflates tensions between police and protestors by cracking a can of Pepsi and handing it to a cop.
Social media immediately lit up with posts calling the ad tone-deaf and offensive. Critics said Pepsi was hijacking inequality-based social movements like Black Lives Matter purely for financial gain. The company pulled the ad after widespread backlash and apologized for bungling their attempt to “project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding.”
A lesson in marketing gone wrong
Pepsi’s debacle offers a lesson in cause-based marketing gone wrong. But it also highlights the growing number of brands aligning with social issues to project a higher purpose. As consultant Mark Ritson wrote in Marketing Week, “this current obsession with brand purpose stems, I believe, from marketers that are unhappy with the prospect of selling stuff.” He goes on to say, “At some point in the last 10 years it became uncool to take professional pride in making splendid products, satisfying customers and generating significant profits.”
There are research that shows that being purpose-driven can be good for business. Multiple studies have revealed positive correlations between social enterprise and financial performance. According to a 2017 study by Cone (a subsidiary of a social marketing agency), 87% of consumers say they would buy a product because a company advocated for an issue they care about.
But I would argue that not all organizations can (or should) have a social purpose. Even without a cause at the core, companies can still stay competitive and operate in a way that makes both customers and employees feel proud to associate with the brand. My company, JotForm, creates online forms. We’re not bringing clean water to developing nations or solving global poverty. Instead, we aim to make people and organizations more productive. We don’t have a social purpose—and that’s okay.
You can run a ethical business without having a social purpose
There’s a difference between running a principled business and aligning with a social purpose. As consultant Graham Kenny explained in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, traditional corporate direction statements place the company at the core. The mission describes the business, while the vision shows where the organization is going, and values outline what the brand stands for. “However, a description of corporate purpose turns an organization inside-out,” wrote Kenny. “Purpose looks at the organization from the outside to consider the difference that a business makes in people’s lives.”
A brand purpose—compared to a social purpose—focuses on the customer. A clear, well-articulated brand purpose is something that everyone from customers to employees to CEOs can rally behind. For example, Nike aims “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.” Zappos lays out its brand purpose in the following words: “To live and deliver wow.”
The issue of inauthenticity
Marketing gaffes from brands like Pepsi, KFC, Lush, and Dove underscore why companies shouldn’t try to manufacture a social purpose unless it already lives at their core. “There are some brands that are genuinely purpose driven,” wrote Ritson. “The clue to their authenticity is that the purpose usually preceded the products. By my best estimation they consist of about 0.2% of the world’s brands.”
Companies in that tiny, social-driven slice could include Toms, Burt’s Bees, Method, and Ben & Jerry’s. Their purpose—from giving shoes to children in need to making ice cream with socially responsible business practices—either inspired the products or have been baked into operations since the day they started.
But when companies like Cadbury claim to “shine a light on the kindness and generosity that we see in society,” while dodging corporate tax payments for six years running, all purpose-driven messages ring hollow. As Kenny wrote, “Before you launch your purpose campaign, put your house in order.”
You don’t have to join the movement
Principled companies can still achieve the benefits that stem from a strong social purpose, like performance, customer loyalty, and employee satisfaction. They key is to understand and communicate your true brand purpose. At JotForm, we aim to make organizations more productive and our users’ lives easier. I sleep well at night because we work every day to achieve this goal.
Brands will also thrive when they listen to their audience. Adidas heard customer concerns around sustainability and environmental protection, so they created running shoes made from recycled plastic waste. The company sold over 5 million pairs in 2018 and plans to make 11 million pairs this year, according to Footwear News.
Employees are also eager to find meaning in their days. A 2016 Gallup survey found that millennials “look for work that fuels their sense of purpose and makes them feel important.” Once again, companies that know how their business improves people’s lives—even in small ways—are more likely to have engaged, loyal employees.
Treating staff well also means encouraging them to have a rich personal life. Encourage team members to take vacations. Compensate them well, listen to their needs, and act on their suggestions. Help them grow and care for their well-being, just as you do the bottom line. Most importantly, work to embody the values that authentically matter to your stakeholders, both inside and outside the organization.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.