Just do it - embracing social purpose

Nike and John Lewis are brands with, on the face of it, little in common - except for their appreciation of the power of social purpose.

Research from EY revealed that one-third (33%) of companies believe they have a purpose and are currently in the process of trying to activate that purpose, whilst 17% have a purpose which reflects what they are about, but plan no activation specifically. Just 4% believe they have no purpose at all.

Both Nike and John Lewis have illustrated their commitment to social purpose in recent months, with actions appropriate to their respective fields. 

While very different, both brands have sought to underline what it is they believe in.

The John Lewis Partnership rebranded to John Lewis & Partners in order to emphasise its partnership business structure. Its new visual identity forms part of a wider drive to empower its people and creates a point of difference for the brand, reassuring customers that their loyalty is well-placed with an honest, caring retailer that supports its employees.

It was closely followed by Nike’s brave - and highly controversial - new campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who started the #TakeAKnee movement in 2016 when he declined to stand for the American anthem in protest against police brutality and racial injustices faced by African-Americans. It was an action that ended his career, with Kaepernick remaining unsigned since.

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Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign is illustrative of the power of social purpose and the results when a brand is seen to be standing for something bigger than its bottom line - after an initial hit, Nike’s shares reached an all-time high, up nearly 4 per cent since the new campaign aired.

Nike’s campaign speaks to people - particularly youngsters - with a message that is relevant and needs to be heard. It’s a brand using its power and influence to effect change that society needs. 

Research from MediaCom found that 40% have stopped buying from a brand or haven’t purchased it in the first place because of its values or behavior. There’s no doubt that people remember brands and businesses that behave badly - negative publicity sticks and it’s very much the role of the PR professional to advise against unwise decisions that could potentially lead to breakdown of consumer trust further down the line.

Trust and honesty are central to the concept of social purpose. While Nike and John Lewis are both examples of brands that have embraced the power of social purpose for commercial benefit, a company’s mission must be felt throughout the entire organisation, visible in everything it does. Very few brands, if any, can honestly claim to have achieved this but it should certainly be the objective. 

For the PR professional, social purpose is a central consideration in both external and internal communications strategy - while it isn’t possible, or expected, for every brand or business to aspire to such stratospheric impact on the big issues we face today, they will be judged on their societal contribution and what they stand for.

However, those brands and businesses seen to be cultivating an external image that doesn’t reflect the reality inside the business and throughout its operations will be very swiftly exposed. 

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has long emphasized the value and importance of social purpose to brands and businesses. The 2017 CIPR National Conference was heavily focused on social purpose - we heard from several organisations that know what they stand for and are committed to using their influence for good, alongside and complementary to their commercial considerations. Vodafone and LADbible were particularly notable examples. 

As a PR professional, it’s important to guide clients in understanding the growing importance of social purpose and the benefit it can bring to their organisation - and the bottom line. 

Social purpose is much more than being seen to be doing good - it’s about actually doing it.