What are the challenges of turning corporate purpose into purpose-driven marketing?

Turning a corporate purpose statement into a brand proposition is rarely straight forward, which presents a real challenge, especially if it doesn’t align with the customer values.

Maybe not surprising when you consider that most corporate purpose statements are designed to keep the shareholders happy, not the customer.

There is a big difference between the corporate mind set (protected by corporate comms and CSR) and the brand one (cherished by marketing and sales).

It also requires a different methodology to traditional communications. “Don’t tell consumer you are good, tell them something that makes them feel you are good,” was the advice given by one CSO. “It’s about social actions, not just words.”

While concerns over climate change remain, the pandemic has forced many brands to refocus back on society.

All big companies do environmental things because they have to, not because they want to. Even oil companies look green these days. But they don’t have to support social projects or community initiatives unless they really care. That’s what really defines a company’s values.” Consumer feedback [CONNECT2 survey, Feb 2021]

As consumers demand more of brands and turn to those that demonstrate values and social responsibility, how you communicate those values can be critical to winning hearts and minds, gaining loyalty and building brand equity.

Virgin Media, has just launched its 5 year sustainability plan with a big focus on society and people, overseen by Jeff Dodds, their Chief Operating Officer. Dodds is also their former CMO and CCO, and their approach is not just marketing based but also focuses on actions. “We use our connectivity and our people to bring communities together,” adds Dodds.

We recently carried out a survey of 100 CSR and Marketing departments to get the insighst ointo what they were planning, how well CSR works with marketing and who was controlling purpose-driven marketing campaigns.

Many agree that to succeed, these departments need to integrate from the start. It can’t just be CSR telling marketing what to say, or marketing doing their own thing.

The challenge this presents is that they both have very different cultures and mind sets, and although most are happy to collaborate (25% say they work well together), trust between the two is not always great, with 10% saying the relationship isn’t good.

In the eyes of some CSR people, allowing marketing to manage the purpose agenda in the public space is like “giving your teen kids the keys to your sports car.”

Over half of CSR and marketing teams feel that although corporate purpose and brand communications generally run side by side they are not always aligned (68%).  Less than a third thought they were aligned, while 13% feel they were actually in conflict.

42% think corporate purpose ‘sort of’ connects with customer values, but needs developing while 20% are updating it. 25% think they connect well, while only a small percentage, 6%, think it’s ‘bang on’.

But if corporate purpose isn’t aligning with consumer values, marketing has to challenge it and redefine the message. After all, marketing is the link between the brand and the customer.

Almost everyone believes purpose adds value and appeal to the brand, here there is near-universal alignment in thinking. And more than half are investing more in purpose driven marketing.

“With consumers expecting brands to “do good” for society and the environment, it is in our business interest as well as in our values to do that good”  commented Tamara Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, GSK Consumer Healthcare. She believes that building purpose, with social responsibility, into their brands is critical, “We combine doing business with doing good together.”

The Pandemic has certainly been a catalyst of change. “It fast-forwarded the agenda 2 years,” says Direct Line CMO Mark Evans, who now works closely with their Head of CSR Lisa Tremble. The company reacted quickly to the crisis and created a £3.5m social fund to help community initiatives. “There was no room for a silo mentality or power struggles, we were all in this together,” he adds.

While some brands may struggle to bridge the gap between CSR and Marketing, O2 has taken a different approach and recently appointed Will Kirkpatrick in a lead role as ‘Head of Sustainability and Social Impact.’ With his background in marketing, and a passion for social good, he has the experience to translate corporate purpose into brand purpose.

Kirkpatrick believes you have to apply a marketing and commercial mind-set to identify the opportunity between your CSR strategy and your marketing strategy.

“Where are the social issues that your customers care about? Where you can make a meaningful difference with your brand and capabilities? When you get this right you’ll add value for customers and it will make your brand more relevant and salient,” he says.

There is little doubt that even before the pandemic consumers were becoming more concerned about values.  GSK’s Rogers says, ”People expect companies to have a point of view and to stand for something. Something that ideally aligns with their values and expectations.”

Kirkpatrick adds, “Today it’s clear that customers are looking to brands to help with some of society’s biggest challenges. And it’s a win-win if you can deliver meaningful initiatives that help make a difference to peoples’ lives – that enhances your brand reputation.”

But while purpose driven marketing may make consumers feel warm and fuzzy, marketing needs it to perform, to drive sales, build loyalty and enhance brand equity.

At the recent WFA leadership conference “Themes for 2021,” Silas Lewis Meilus, GSK’s Head of Media APAC, commented that one of the biggest issues for 2021 was marketing and corporate communications (CSR) aligning their thinking. Consumers are demanding it and the big business challenge was therefore “Bringing together purpose and performance.”

Many believe that purpose driven marketing needs to adopt new rules, with a less heavy handed ‘in your face’ approach. Brands need to engage consumers in a meaningful way, more through actions and customer engagement than simply through big media campaigns. The challenge is – can marketing change its ways?

For the consumer, how brands communicate requires a massive rethink to avoid purpose wash. “Brash claims or token social media posts won’t win consumers over. Instead brands need to engage society, communities and people direct through actions,” commented Jeremy Taylor, MD of CONNECT2, a specialist in community engagement.

In a recent Marketing Kind seminar, marketing guru Seth Godin said, “Mission statements only become of value to consumers when they become mission actions.” Something for leaders of both CSR and marketing departments to consider in the post-Covid world.


Dr Chris Arnold, Founder of Creative Orchestra and CONNECT2


Dr Chris Arnold is a Dr of Business (DBA) and specialist in sustainability and purpose driven marketing. He is founder of Creative Orchestra and CONNECT2 and a member of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. He was the Brand Republic blogger on ethical marketing and author of Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer.