Consumers are choosing purpose-led brands that put people before profit, and rejecting those that don't. Whilst purpose is fundamental to these businesses in many aspects, interestingly, it often takes a back seat in marketing. Today's brands, it seems, are being built on actions, not advertising.
Voting with spend
The relationship between brand and consumer has changed. An explosion of new purpose-led brands to categories mean that, for consumers, once simple transactions, even for everyday items, is now akin to marking a cross on a polling card. An endorsement, or a rejection, of one worldview over another.
“Consumers now more than ever are voting with their dollars for brands that are doing good in the world" says Neil Grimmer, the co-founder of Plum Organics. Plum became the 3rd largest baby food brand in the US in ten years, and were built around a purpose of feeding the very best food to kids.
So what has caused today's consumers to become so motivated to make purchasing decisions, based upon a brand's purpose?
"Wall Street is corrupt, big corporations are out to screw you, the government’s a mess, and the media you can’t trust", says Bayard Winthrop, founder of apparel company American Giant. "Consumers today feel that all these institutions that are supposed to help, and care for people are broken".
A leadership void
With the traditional institutions of the establishment faltering, and a growing mistrust towards those who are supposed to set the vision for society, perhaps a leadership void has opened up? A void that is now being filled by businesses, willing to offer both a vision as well as actions, in tackling real world problems.
Piccolo, a UK baby food brand, are donating at least 100,000 pouches to parents struggling financially, in the run up to Christmas. They will donate a pouch to a food bank via The Trussell Trust, for every pouch sold, until the end of the year, adopting the One for One model first introduced by TOMS shoes.
"I don't think you can separate daily life with national and global issues" says Cat Gazzoli, founder of Piccolo. "Food banks are on the rise in the UK and it's happening on our doorstep. We want to make sure parents who are struggling financially are able to give their child healthy, age appropriate food".
It's an incredibly generous initiative from a small business with an annual turnover just reaching £3m, but one that comes with its share of risk. ''We want to help as many people as possible" says Cat, "but we need to be mindful that we are still a small company, and so we just do as much as we can."
Interestingly, purpose-led companies such as Piccolo, Warby Parker and American Giant aren't making their social purpose or the actions that define it, central to their marketing or communications. Which can seem surprising when these actions can have such positive impact, often saving or improving lives.
“I'm not doing this because I think that every consumer is going to choose Piccolo because of it. They're definitely not", says Cat, "but it’s the reason I'm doing Piccolo, and in order for Piccolo to do well, I have to be motivated as founder, and my team has to be motivated, and this is what motivates us.”
The question is, then, how are consumers being made aware of all the good that Piccolo and this new wave of purpose-led brands do. How should a company's social or environmental purpose influence and interact with marketing and communications?
Warby Parker are one of the world's best known challenger brands. They have a social purpose based on the belief that 'Everyone has the right to see'. A Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program, sees that for every pair of glasses sold, a pair are distributed to someone in need, alleviating the problem of impaired vision.
"The social mission is the last thing that a customer will learn about us, not because it’s the lowest priority", says Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO. "But because it’s not the most important thing that someone needs to know to drive them to purchase our glasses."
"Doing good in the world helps us recruit and retain talent", says Neil, "it makes customers more loyal, happier, more likely to tell their friends about us, more likely to purchase a second and third pair of glasses, but it's not the number one reason people buy from us initially.”
Social purpose has become fundamental to businesses. It's the reason founders start them. It's the reason employees join and stay at companies. It motivates people. It gives businesses focus and direction. And for consumers it's another push to purchase a brand, compared to non-purpose-led competitors.
But with consumers increasingly conscientious about the brands they buy, perhaps it's felt that preaching isn't necessary, and conscientious consumers will investigate a company's purpose and social initiatives of their own accord. Access to information is after all, only a click away.
Small acts, huge impact
We're seeing consumers embrace and endorse brands with a strong sense of social responsibility, and reject those who don't. Across categories, the incumbent brands are under threat from a wave of socially minded challengers. Yet, it's not a toppling of the establishment. It's a steady chipping away.
Because it's driven by progressive challengers who lead by example, through meaningful action, not slogans and advertisements.
Peanut butter without palm oil means less deforestation. Soft drinks without fructose means less obesity. Choosing the brand with the buy a pair give a pair program, could provide the gift of vision, or a free meal so parents struggling financially, can feed their child.
These challengers aren't necessarily shouting about how they are changing the world. They are just getting on and changing it. And whilst these actions and initiatives can individually seem small, the consequences for brands, people and the planet are huge.
It feels like a very quiet revolution. And the silence is getting louder.
Editor of The Challenger Project, marketing at eatbigfish. Fan of the underdog. West Ham supporter. All adds up really.