If you’re a marketer these days, chances are your ad agency has pitched you on a brand-purpose spot. Why not? Millennials want brands with purpose, and creatives love working on these types of projects. After all, in our fractured world, this is where the inspiring ideas are now. But before you embark on the next great brand-purpose campaign, take a look at this Verizon spot.

The video shows how Verizon is helping Hawaiian Electric modernize its grid and transition to 100 percent renewable energy to preserve the natural beauty of the islands. At first blush, this looks like an excellent example of the social-impact genre—brands helping good people do important things and making an ad about it. Strategically, it’s a smart idea: Transcend the commoditized telecom category by showcasing how Verizon technology is solving important problems like climate change and transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. It puts the brand on the side of human progress, distributed energy and heroic people making change.

tree growing out of rocks on cliffside

Backing brand purpose with substance

The problem is that it’s only half true. Verizon is indeed helping Hawaiian Electric embrace the future of renewable energy, but Verizon itself gets only about 2 percent of its energy from renewable sources, lagging far behind T-Mobile, which has committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2021.

This gap between the teller and the tale did not go unnoticed. Green America pointed out the difference between Verizon’s message and its own actions: “‘Humanability’ is Verizon’s new program that enables humans to use its technology to improve the world in sustainability, education and health care sectors. But Verizon should not forget its own ‘Humanability’ and how it could do more in this world directly—starting with the purchase of far more clean energy.”

The Verizon spot is an example of borrowed purpose. By telling the story of Hawaiian Electric, Verizon gives the impression that it is committed to renewable energy when, in fact, it is not (yet). Much like cultural appropriation, the beef here is that you’re borrowing something you didn’t earn, hoping it will rub off on you for your own gain. Once people find out—and they always find out—you look like a poseur.

This is not to imply cynicism on the part of the people at Verizon. The folks in marketing may not have known where their company’s power comes from, and they never thought to ask. In most big companies, it’s a long way from the marketing floor to procurement and ESG (environmental, social and governance).

Communications around brand purpose require a different approach—here are three questions to keep you on track:

1. Have you earned the right to talk about this issue?

Why can Nike talk about social justice with Colin Kaepernick and receive accolades, while Pepsi gets shelled for speaking to similar issues with Kendall Jenner? One word: provenance. Nike has a long history of taking on social justice issues through the athletes it supports. The company has taken heat for it at times, but Nike has paid its dues. Pepsi has not, so its efforts—however well-intentioned—come off looking like borrowed brand purpose.

2. Is your company walking your talk?

As we see with Verizon, nothing travels faster than stories of contradiction. Make sure your company has your back when you champion an issue. The folks in legal, finance and operations need to be on board, lest their efforts unintentionally undermine yours. As with renewable energy, you don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be on a path. Your colleagues in CR are usually the best equipped to help you avoid purpose pitfalls.

3. Is your company part of the problem you are working to solve?

Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All, notes that many companies want to change the world without their own world being changed. This leads to blind spots, where the company may be benefiting from a status quo that it also purports to want to change. You can have a great campaign to address inequality, but does your company pay its fair share of taxes and support legislation to increase the minimum wage? What issues does your company lobby in support of? You should know before you play the purpose game.

The rise of purpose-driven brands reflects our common need for companies to take a real role in solving the problems of our time. This is more than the next trend to capitalize on; it’s a calling.

If we want people to follow us, they have to know where we’re headed, and they have to believe we intend to get there.

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