Greater Purpose

Hero Brands: The Increasingly Urgent Quest To Do Good, Better


We’ve reached a time when consumers expect brands to stand behind more than the products and services they sell. Companies must show through their actions and affiliations that they’ve earned the right to enjoy the perks of a consumer-driven economy. Payback means tackling big-picture social, ethical, and environmental issues. It’s the right thing to do. Plus, how can we enjoy our widgets if the world around us withers? A website without drop-down menus and homepage banners dedicated to corporate social responsibility feels incomplete – and worse, a little dubious. Inaction carries risk in the fishbowl of social media, and irresponsibility goes viral. For Millennial consumers who are CSR natives, full attention by brands to Greater Purpose is an imperative.

The most culturally relevant companies have stopped accessorizing with CSR. They interweave CSR into their fabric. They do so with increasingly rich, bold, and textured patterns which allure consumers season to season. Purpose-driven brands can’t be static in anything – including how they champion causes and involve consumers in doing social good. Dynamism within CSR is crucial to sparking real change and sustaining relevance among consumers.

Take Tesla, out in front of 2014’s Cultural Traction survey. Tesla automobiles have won accolades for their speed and gorgeous design. Yet the beauty of the carmaker lies beyond aesthetics. The brand towers as Visionary – leading the way while also stimulating excitement and fascination about where it goes next. We all know the story of this upstart that upstaged an automotive industry by recognizing the futility of fossil fuels and instead investing in sustainable technology. If that weren’t enough, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk announced in 2014 that he would divulge the company’s secret, patented information about batteries and charging stations, even collaborating with competitors to turbocharge the rollout of electric vehicles. This open source approach, both daring and transparent, has captured the imagination and respect of the public.

Also at the top for VIBE in 2014 is Etsy. In this brand’s case, a purpose-driven strategy means people-driven, which means igniting the collective power of its maker-seller-buyer ecosystem. On the surface, every online retail platform promotes self-interest through consumption and supplying demand. But Etsy officially shifted to become a Certified B Corporation – for-profit, yet committed to social sustainability. For instance, making training and tools accessible has become an explicit mission. As makers metamorphose into small businesses, the entrepreneur landscape expands, empowered like never before.

Other brands that gained Cultural Traction in 2014 set a calculated course for Greater Purpose. Ford is one example, up over 11% from 2012 and landing in the Top 10. This stems partly from its environmentally conscientious engineering focus – which, unlike Tesla, it can sell to consumers as economically conscientious. Amazon also rose 10% to the #3 slot. To be sure, its wide reach in our lives explains its lofty position. But a milestone shift for the e-tailer is its recent stake in CSR through AmazonSmile, which gives .5% of every sale to charitable causes of consumers’ choice. In turn, e-commerce takes on personal meaning and magnitude.

As brands across categories have cemented their CSR creds, the limelight around longtime hero brands requires more energy to keep bright. In fact, from 2012 to 2014, we saw marked declines in overall VIBE for several purpose-driven companies: Chipotle, which trumpets “food with integrity” (-15%); TOMs, founded on a “buy one-give one” philosophy (-18%); Dove, which redefined “real beauty” as love of one’s true self (-18%); Subway, which links fast with transparency and freshness (-14%).

Esty master_vps

Why are these brands with established equity for social conscientiousness losing Cultural Traction? Are there now too many hero brands to claim a clear difference in making a difference?

Chipotle makes an interesting case study. The burrito chain initiated the trend toward healthier fast food, which helped make the brand a heavyweight in the fast casual category. The company touts natural ingredients, responsibly-raised meat, and its effort toward sourcing local ingredients. It advocates against industrial farming through compelling animated commercials viewed by millions on YouTube, a satirical series that educates, and sponsorship of Cultivate, multi-city, grassroots-like festivals with organic, local fare, chef demos, and bands.

Despite these noteworthy brushstrokes on the cultural canvas for CSR, 2014’s Cultural Traction survey suggests Chipotle’s edge has dulled over the past two years. Overall VIBE has declined – with dramatically lowered perceptions as Inspiring (standing for something I want to be part of), -28%, and Exciting (disruptive and has momentum), -23%. These patterns suggest a lack of dynamism to keep brand identity fresh.

Esty master_vps

One strategic error by Chipotle has been a lack of innovation in a category where consumers are constantly seeking novelty.

Precocious regional QSR chains such as Tender Greens, Native Foods Café, and LYFE Kitchen (led by former McDonald’s COO Mike Roberts and CCO Mike Donahue) offer new propositions for the category such as sustainably caught fish, free-range chicken, artisan charcuterie, organic produce, all-vegan, and seasonal menus. Culinary pioneer Chef José Andrés is launching a vegetable-centric quick-serve restaurant he plans to expand into a chain, with the goal of reversing assumptions that vegetables are side dishes. Sweetgreen’s app not only makes ordering convenient like Chipotle’s does, it rewards loyalty through personal perks and automatic donations to healthy food programs in schools.

Chipotle has also been called out for not publishing an annual sustainability report that verifiably show whether it practices what it preaches. The chain’s hesitation violates what has become a basic tenet of purpose-driven brands – fearless transparency.

Meanwhile, the food industry in 2014 has yielded provocative, clever, and engaging examples of brands being straight with consumers – on menus, packs, and in commercials. The McDonald’s “our food, your questions” campaign centers on transparency, directly answering even the most skeptical inquiries (e.g. detailing the behind-the-scenes of chicken McNuggets to quash “pink goop” rumors). Weight Watchers’ “eat a snack” commercial addresses the complicated emotions linked with overeating to the tune of a retro, re-lyricized children’s song. Both of these efforts depict the mindsets of real consumers, and feel like a switch from top-down, corporate-led moralizing.

We offer up a few ice-breakers for strategists:

  • What can brands do to be continually disruptive and fresh as they pursue their socially responsible missions?
  • How can consumers themselves be tapped as collaborators and co-creators throughout the CSR journey – from the get-go in identifying causes, to ideating, implementing, and realizing change?
  • How can communications become more open and balanced in positives and negatives? Progress-oriented? Stimulating and imaginative? Interactive?
  • How can win-wins be easier for consumers to share in? How can outcomes feel more personally meaningful, closer to home, and part of their everyday lives?