Purpose- or values-driven marketing is turning into the hot idea of late.  Here’s how the NY Times described it:

Purpose marketing, also called pro-social marketing, advertising for good and conscious capitalism, woos consumers with information about the values, behavior and beliefs of the companies that sell the products. The goal is to convince potential customers that the companies operate in a socially responsible manner. . .

Even Y&R’s Chief Insights Officer John Gerzema, author of Spend Shift and the forthcoming The Athena Doctrine, noted in a recent conversation he and I had that: “Now, consumers . . . are increasingly driven by ethics and values. Marketing now is about aligning with your customers in order to sell them.”

Based on the above mentioned piece on Panera Bread’s purpose-driven marketing activity, strategist Peter Spear asked, “Is this an example of cultural leadership?”  The short answer is no, it’s not.

Expressing core values in marketing communications, even ones that align with those of your customers, is just that: It’s alignment.  And, to Panera’s credit, they are trying to walk the walk: mostly organic ingredients, supporting anti-hunger initiatives.  But if this is the age of purpose-driven marketing, these actions, important as they are, are simply table stakes.

Is there anything risky about using organic ingredients?  No.  And feeding the hungry is the right thing to do. Period.

Cultural leadership involves tapping some conversation, feeling, concern, or anxiety that’s just below the surface, something that people are talking about amongst themselves and, when they see a brand act on it, they say, “Yes, exactly!”  Because they didn’t quite realize that other people were also having that conversation.  Again, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty comes to mind in this regard.

Also, Panera’s marketing efforts seem to be solely focused on itself.  What the communication doesn’t do is try to suggest that we should be trying to have a bigger conversation about hunger in this country.  Rather, it’s about look what we’re doing: You can feel good about eating here because we use organic ingredients and care about the less fortunate  This isn’t to suggest that Panera’s isn’t an authentic effort, just that it’s purpose-driven marketing, nothing more.

As the definition of cultural leadership evolves, here’s where it stands as of today:

  1. Purpose is a good start, as it maps to “meaningfulness”, but it’s not enough.
  2. Direct–or, even better, reframe–a conversation.
  3. Your brand’s position on said issue must involve some risk (exposure, vulnerability, taking a leap you’re not sure your brand can make). Based on this definition, table stakes don’t count.

I expect that this definition will evolve as we all continue to discuss it.  Your thoughts?

Posted by Rob Fields

Observer. Curator. Marketer. Dot connector.