Admiral David Farragut’s famous battle cry, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” tells the story of a brave, calculated risk that ultimately paid off. It was wartime and he needed his crew to move through deadly naval mines. Retreat was not an option. His epic victory—the Union’s capture of New Orleans during the Civil War—ultimately came from making the right move at the most critical moment.

two executives sitting across from each other in a meeting

Calculating the risk

Marketers are finding themselves facing similar circumstances. In today’s hairy socio-political climate, taking a stance, holding a position, or standing for something can present as an act of war. And as brands converge around the causes that unite them with their customers, there needs to be an awareness of how the brand can play in the increasingly crowded space.

Nike’s recent Colin Kaepernick campaign purportedly added $6 billion to their market value and won moral victory. But for every Nike-esque win, other brands fail, sometimes as epically as Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner moment. While both examples took on issues of social justice, one brand had the right to take a stand, the other didn’t—and paid for it with loss of credibility.

Since sailing boldly forward is risky, a brand might choose to avoid this minefield altogether. However, studies continue to show a future where purpose is heading into the mainstream, where the brands that form more meaningful connections with people will prosper, and where inauthenticity is ignored or even punished.

  • The path forward begins with examining the brand, its history, mission, vision, values, provenance, business model and even its supply chain. Extreme clarity is critical to determining a course of action. Any contradiction between what the brand stands for and its business model signals danger.
  • Once a direction is determined, brands need to be attuned to how potential actions may be perceived. Anything that seems tepid, uninspiring or unambitious will convey to audiences that the money story is still the real agenda.
  • Getting internal audiences aligned is also essential. To be credible there must be authentic buy-in from employees to the C-suite.

Half-knowing is the battle

Purpose marketing has hit the mainstream, and it will continue to be dangerous territory with risks that beg to be identified and thoughtfully addressed. Like the dangers facing Admiral Farragut, the dangers of purpose marketing can lie hidden under the surface. Effectively defusing them requires an understanding of the complex and sophisticated space corporate responsibility occupies.

It’s a highly specialized area with a different language, a dictionary of acronyms, and a distinct culture. Approach it as you would any foreign place, by listening with respect and with a hope to have your world expanded.

The gathering and measuring of any corporate responsibility and sustainability efforts needs the attention of category experts, both inside your organization and externally too. These are unique audiences and stakeholders that marketers rarely deal with; the industry is full of well- informed advocates and NGOs that are finely tuned to instantly detect insincerity or manipulation. Know that these groups will unleash fierce criticism on any purpose marketing action that fails scrutiny, and will also champion the heroes who get it right.

Moving forward, marketers will need more resources to manage messaging than they have now. Tomorrow’s successful campaigns will require combining marketing expertise to deliver compelling, impactful stories with sustainability expertise to ensure they’re built on solid, authentic foundations.

This won’t be a natural partnership. Marketing and CSR are two dramatically different areas of expertise with vastly different KPIs. But they need to find alignment, and the sentiment must be felt (and driven) by stakeholders across the organization, starting at the top. Brands that depend on marketing alone will be inviting torpedoes.