The conversation on cultural leadership continues.  Below is a follow-up to brand strategist Peter Spear’s response to my post on why purpose-driven marketing is not cultural leadership.

Peter, thanks for your thoughtful response. I really appreciate the chance to have this dialogue. Let’s dive in.

First, was the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty only a communications idea? I was about to say yes, particularly after Kimberly-Clark CMO Clive Sirkin pointed out last week at my association’s Annual Conference–and you make this point, too–Dove didn’t remake its business based on the success of its campaign. But further investigation shows that they have continued to develop the self-esteem attribute of the brand as late as 2011. In fact, in 2010, it became the Dove Movement for Self-Esteem. The brand has partnered (in the US) with Girls Inc.; the Boys & Girls Clubs of America; and the Girl Scouts. They’ve created guides for self-esteem activities for girls 8-12 as well as a girls’ guide to responsible online behavior (some anti-mean girl stuff here).

Second, I think what Panera is doing is authentic and they’re smart to weave this organic positioning throughout their business. They definitely have some impressive business growth to show for their efforts: Since around this time in 2009, the company stock has appreciated about 210%, closing at $179.15 yesterday.

Where I think the difference between the two brands is that the former’s activities had a catalyzing effect on the culture. The Campaign For Real Beauty brought into relief something that was under the surface. The Dove program gave you a sense of cultural frisson, that you were part of a larger and timely conversation.  I’m not sure that Panera’s efforts—and they’re really thorough, as you point out—offer that same sense of excitement.  There’s something missing in it for me.  Let’s just call what they’re doing really smart business for now. Panera’s not the only fast food chain to embrace organic, either (Chipotle, Pret A Manger, among other national chains; Evos, BurgerVille and Bare Burger, among local/regional operators).  At the very least, it suggests to me that what they’re doing isn’t risky because others see a market for it, too.

Now, in terms of the definition of cultural leadership, it may be the case that I’m thinking of it too narrowly. The way you’re coming at it is around the notion of purpose-driven brands. And, as I noted, it’s important for brands to recognize the need to align along values and ethics, as shoppers have tons of information and are extremely choiceful.  It also means that brands will have to live and embody what they say they are, not just in communications, but how they behave in-store, their sourcing practices, their customer service and, I think, what they contribute back to society (hat tip to Umair Haque’s idea of Betterness).

I’ll admit, too, that I’m still grappling with how to define cultural leadership in a way that ultimately takes it beyond purpose-driven. And recall one of my initial questions: Is it possible or worthwhile to for a brand to seek to achieve cultural leadership?  The jury’s still out, so you may be right about the lack of appetite for a significant number of brands to set cultural leadership as a goal.

Maybe I’m grasping for something that’s not there. But for the time being, it feels like there’s more to be explored. . .

Your thoughts?

Posted by Rob Fields