Marketing is as well thought of in society as sales, often carrying a negative connotation associated with manipulation and selling people stuff they don’t need. Simply take the title of Martin Lindstrom’s well-known book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. From a cynical point-of-view, marketing is about making false claims or exploiting natural human instincts to drive consumption and corporate growth.
But that need not be the case, nor is it true for all enterprises. Lately, it’s the brands that embrace good that seem to be capturing consumers’ attentions and interests, as long as they can buy into the product and cause. What’s different about these companies? They create a purpose and platform upon which to build a business that a consumer can rally behind. Take Patagonia, Toms, Etsy, and Warby Parker—all companies that have grown significantly over the last several years by being focused on building a brand centered around doing good that just happens to also grow consumption. The results? After a contraction in 2012, Patagonia has now reached almost $500 million in sales. Toms was valued this year at $625 million just 8 years after its start. Etsy has sold over $1 billion in retail sales on its platform. And, Warby Parker has already sold over half a million frames at $95-a-pop in just four years of business and with an NPS score greater than 80.
Using these companies as role models, here are 5 tips to find your way to building a company that can also brand for good and hopefully garner similar business results.
1. Position from a genuine purpose
This is obvious, but choose wisely and with authenticity. This should be central to your brand platform, even more so than a brand essence. What is the brand’s purpose? What is your vision and mission? What do you believe in? What will you stand up for? What cause will you champion? For Patagonia, it’s the environment. For Etsy, it’s about fueling a human-centered economy. For Toms, it’s helping others through its one-to-one model. Having this defined will help govern brand activities beyond just marketing communications, rounding out the brand’s meaning.
2. Evaluate becoming a Benefit Corporation
It’s no wonder that many of these “do good” companies are private; focusing on more than just the bottom line is not generally accepted by Corporations that are centered around maximizing shareholder value. Now, there’s a new business type called Benefit Corporations supported in over 25 states that allows companies to focus on more than just profit and running the business to not only drive monetary success, but also to support society and the environment. It’s not surprising to find that Warby Parker, Etsy, and Patagonia, whose founder lobbied for this new form of business, are all Benefit Corporations.
3. Use your platform and take a stand
As any good brand marketer knows, a brand has to live its essence to build believable brand meaning. This is that much more true if you brand for good. Cause programs can’t be simply sending a small check off to non-profit organizations. Rather, these companies demonstrate proactive championing of their causes, leveraging the platforms they’ve created. Patagonia has been at the forefront of this lately. Two years ago, it launched its Common Threads campaign, which encourages its consumers to buy less by relying on the company to make quality, long-lasting products and encouraging them to fix products rather than buy new. Counter-intuitively, this campaign actually led to increased visits to the company’s website and higher sales. The company this year created a VC fund to support entrepreneurial businesses focused on improving the environment. It funded the creation of a film, Damnation, also released this year that forwards the cause of eliminating unused, harmful dams. Instead of fighting ills, Toms is propagating good. Last year, the company launched Tom’s Marketplace, a place to find other like-minded social entrepreneurs, both leveraging its strong brand awareness to build others’ businesses and championing products from those communities the company is trying to support around the world.
4. Bring your brand and cause forward through content and community activities
Companies today that position themselves around lifestyles and philosophies are not solely purveyors of products, but rather sellers of lifestyles and culture, becoming forums for commerce, content, and community. The content and community elements round out the brand and bring its meaning more to the fore, as well as make them stand out compared to traditional marketing approaches. Patagonia has long created content that keeps its outdoor and environmentalism forward and has dialed it up of late. For example, this year it released a catalog that had only four pages of featured product out of forty-two, instead focusing the issue on championing falconry and the work done to save birds of prey. To keep its community active and engaged on its platform, Etsy hosts a range of community events from craft meet-ups to sewing parties. The company also offers programs such as seller boot camps before the holiday season to educate their community on best business, merchandising, and marketing practices to further the sellers’ success. Warby Parker uses experiential marketing to build brand awareness and connection with potential buyers. Last year the company’s “Class Trip” experiential marketing program brought a school bus, renovated to look like a professor’s library, to cities around the country for customers to test out their eyewear and be a part of the brand.
5. Be accountable to your purpose and react to feedback
By committing to a cause, a brand sets a bar to which the broader community will hold you accountable. Be open to this feedback. In the past, Toms took some heat from people that didn’t believe its free shoes model was entirely positive, suggesting that it didn’t help the targeted communities in a way that was sustainable. Some label it corporate charity, rather than providing real solutions to solve poverty. The founder, Blake Mycoskie, has taken heed to these protests and finally admitted that the company could do better and more. It’s doubtful that the company’s intent was born from ill will, and Mycoskie is responding to address the feedback through new ventures, such as committing to build a shoe manufacturing plant in Haiti and launching a new coffee venture that will support water initiatives, critical to economies and community health.
Branding that encourages positive consumer behavior and serves our collective best interest is not evil. We all have needs and desires that products meet, and we buy them to address those needs. When we make those purchases, we have a choice of the brands we put in our cart. Companies that brand for good can tip the scale such that those purchases don’t need to be tinged with annoyance, frustration, or guilt. Branding for good can hopefully get us to a place where consumption actually has a positive halo.
Image: Kelley Bozarth