A higher calling: How brands can compete on social purpose

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October 16, 2017

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Sundar Bharadwaj

Sundar Bharadwaj

Coca-Cola Company Chair Professor of Marketing


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Athens, Ga. - Do you like your cleaning products to be eco-friendly? Your shoes supportive of workers' rights? Companies are increasingly using their good deeds to identify and differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and new research from the University of Georgia explains how and why it works.

In a new article published in Harvard Business Review, Sundar Bharadwaj, who holds the Coca-Cola Company Chair of Marketing at UGA's Terry College of Business, demonstrates how brands can effectively incorporate a social purpose into their marketing communications and benefit a social cause simultaneously.

"I think there are lots of problems that we have as society that the government cannot solve and individuals do not have the resources to solve, so it's important that businesses step in," he said. "There's clearly an opportunity for businesses to do good while doing well for themselves-but they have to do it right."

That means making careful decisions about how to incorporate a social purpose within the larger context of a brand.

"You have to align the social purpose with activities that are meaningful and appropriate for your brand," Bharadwaj said. "For example, it makes more sense for a bank to invest in financial literacy or help the un-banked than it would to support a symphony orchestra. Both are beneficial to society, but financial literacy resonates with a bank's brand and has a clearer association for customers and stakeholders."

To arrive at their conclusions, Bharadwaj and his co-author, Omar Rodriguez-Vila of Georgia Tech, studied many failed and successful campaigns and partnered with nearly a dozen leading brands.

The resulting article walks managers through the steps necessary to find an appropriate avenue for their social purpose efforts. First, companies need to consider their brand's history, reputation and customer base to find a social cause that fits.

"If you're a fast food company, maybe talking about obesity and health will create a credibility issue for you. You've got to pick an issue that's appropriate," Bharadwaj said. "We looked at a successful campaign from a brand name cold medication. Their product is all about care-caring for your family or caring for sick people. So, they've taken that idea of caring to include transgender rights in India. They have ads showing how they care about transgender rights. They've expanded the idea of caring from an individual level to a societal level."

But a good fit isn't always enough. Managers should also consider how a social purpose reinforces the aspects of a brand that are most relevant or beneficial for consumers. For example, while a label touting "organic ingredients" could lead to positive associations for an herbal tea, it could imply less cleaning power in a household cleaner.

"You have to ask: Is this the right time to do something? Does your brand stand for something else? You shouldn't take your brand to areas where it doesn't have the natural ability to go," Bharadwaj said.

An effective social purpose strategy must create real value, otherwise customers may feel manipulated. A good way to ensure that a company's efforts are paying real dividends is to partner with organizations or individuals who are already doing good work on an issue, Bharadwaj said.

"If you don't have credibility or the authenticity, a social purpose campaign can absolutely hurt you," he said.

Bharadwaj and Rodriguez-Vila are continuing to study social purpose as part of their larger interest in multiple stakeholder marketing and are working on a book. Their article is published in the September-October 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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