What is Marketing’s Role in the Purpose Economy?
By Anne Boyle | April 1, 2016
A few years ago, I had a surreal experience at a large business development conference for marketing and ad agencies.
As someone who has spent my career marketing for social good, mixing with more “traditional” marketers was an eye-opening experience. In some ways it was exactly what I expected, and in others ways it wasn’t. While I did learn some interesting things from these business development pros who seemed to spend all of their time courting any company with a significant marketing budget, the surreal part came whenever I introduced myself.
I’d give my “elevator pitch” about how RoundPeg develops brands and campaigns for working exclusively with B Corps and other for-benefit businesses. In response I’d get a pause or blank stare as my counterpart tried to process what I’d said. By rough estimate, of the 70-ish people I met, only about 10% seemed to understand what I meant by social good. The other 90% replied with some variation of “What does that mean?”
It’s time for marketers to help make the good choice the easy choice.
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Read our Manifesto to learn how.
Further explanation elicited responses ranging from “Why would you do that?” to “Is there any money in that?” and a few instances of a patronizing, “Good for you.” Precious few asked for more information. Those who did were especially intrigued when I explained the rapidly growing B Corp market. I could see the spark of opportunity in the eyes of some, though I’ll never know if any of them pursued working with purpose-driven companies.
In the past several years, we’ve seen an increase in firms marketing social enterprise or using their business as a force for good. When we became a B Corp in 2012 we were the first marketing firm in our state to certify and at that time, only a handful of marketing firm B Corps existed. Now there are more than 140. Some larger firms (not B Corps) have added practice areas for social impact companies, while others have expanded an existing cause marketing practice. I can’t help but wonder whether, if I went to the same conference this year, my elevator pitch would evoke a different response.
The increase in the number of marketing firms and other B2B services providers working with socially responsible businesses is encouraging. It signals that the movement of for-benefit business has reached a tipping point and a critical mass of companies need these services. It also signals a shift in thinking among marketers: they see that they can use their talents and skills for good. It’s not unlike the social marketing revolution that began roughly 30 years ago when marketers and behavior change scientists started applying marketing principles to change behavior for health and nonprofit causes. That’s where I spent much of my career so the parallels are difficult to ignore.
Marketing as usual only works for business as usual, and the fourth sector is anything but business as usual.
But unlike the social marketing revolution, not all firms are rethinking marketing for the fourth sector. Marketing as usual only works for business as usual, and the fourth sector is anything but business as usual (Click to Tweet!). When I see firms replicating what they’ve done for traditional companies and slapping “social good” or “purpose” on it, or when larger firms add a cause or social enterprise practice right next to their practices marketing cars and tobacco, it’s makes me a bit sick.
Regardless, I’m excited about the widespread interest in helping for-benefit companies compete in a world where doing good is not yet the norm. Change has to start somewhere. I hope to look back in another 30 years and understand this time as the beginning of a revolution in marketing altogether – one that mirrors and champions the revolution of using business as a force for good.
As for RoundPeg, we’ve been reflecting on how we can best serve these intrepid companies that are changing how business is done – how we can truly use marketing as a force for good.
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We need to challenge conspicuous consumption by changing how people make purchasing decisions.
We’ve come to the conclusion that traditional marketing of B Corp and other socially responsible products isn’t enough. We need to challenge conspicuous consumption by changing how people make purchasing decisions. Because when buying responsibly is the norm, businesses with good in their DNA will become the norm.
As marketers, it’s our responsibility to help consumers undo the damage our predecessors have done. The power has always been with the consumer. Now, we must show them that every purchasing decision they make is an opportunity to be the change the world needs. And we must equip them with the information they need to make better choices.
How did we get here?
People used to know where their food and clothing and other possessions came from. They produced what they ate themselves or bought it directly from farmers and other local producers. They knew the tailor who made their clothes and the craftsmen who made their furniture. Often, they built what they needed with their own two hands.
The onset of the industrial revolution changed that. People moved into cities, which changed how they lived, and the assembly line changed how goods were made. The origins of what we put in our bodies, wear on our backs and use to furnish our homes became foreign to us.
Modern conveniences made it so that suddenly, we had time to pursue other endeavors – so that making a meal was no longer an entire day’s work. That’s where we are today. We occupy our time with pursuits unrelated to producing food or furniture or gadgets, so we’ve lost touch with where these things come from. We don’t know how they’re made, who made them, or what’s in them and we don’t know how their creation impacted people, animals and natural resources along the way.
When we’re tired or bored of something, we throw it away. When we want to impress, we get something new. When we’re too tired to cook, we buy ready-made meals in plastic containers. We’re no longer hunters or gatherers or makers or craftsmen: now we’re consumers.
Societal shifts changed the way we look for and purchase food and goods, but it was marketers who changed how we think about and value things. Marketing has been around for a long time — even in the “idyllic” days of farming and small town life, medicine men were hocking elixirs and contraptions to make life easier. After all, who doesn’t want an easier life?
During and after World War II, marketers went into overdrive to promote conspicuous consumption. Families moved from small dwellings in cities to manufactured suburban communities where the latest car in the driveway wasn’t just a necessity; it was a symbol of success. Fine furniture, clothes and other goods became a shared language through which people could communicate their status to one another and form connections with others like them.
Marketers recognized the void felt by the businessman wasting his days away in an office and the housewife whose sense of self depended on how nice her home was and how well behaved her children were. They tapped into traditional values and a longing for simpler times (ironic, huh?) and encouraged people desperately searching for meaning to buy. Buy NEW, buy BETTER, buy BIGGER, but most importantly BUY.
As technology advanced, corporations worked to squeeze the most dollars out of human and material resources to generate the most profit. And marketers were there to help. Claims like New and Improved or Healthy and Tasty camouflaged lower quality products made with toxic chemicals by exploited workers in ways that decimated our natural resources.
Consumers were so far removed from the origin of their purchases that they were blind to these infractions. Marketers exploited that. They tapped into values and longings to position superfluities as necessities, make the case for shoddily built products and convince consumers that obtaining the latest version was essential. They constructed a culture where a quickening cycle of waste and consumption ran rampant.
Time for Change
It never had to be this way and things are finally starting to change. Exploitation and decimation – along with the negative health effects of this toxic existence – are coming to light. People are starting to wake up. A small group of consumers are paying more attention to what they buy, where it comes from, how it’s made, what it’s made from, and whether it’s needed at all. And a growing group of companies are helping these folks buy things that are good for them, good for others and good for the planet.
At the same time, the democratization of the media and a tidal wave of easily accessible information are putting the power back into the hands of consumers, allowing us to share our experiences, recommendations, complaints and ideas. Marketers and the companies they serve are no longer the only ones with an audience.
While we may be experiencing consumers’ largest push back against blind consumerism, it’s not yet enough. The majority of consumers are still unaware of the wastefulness of the lifestyles that have been constructed for them and remain ignorant of the impacts of their purchasing decisions.
Just as companies can create change in supply chains, the way they treat their employees and how they make what they sell, marketing agencies have a huge role to play in helping consumers genuinely shop with their values.
Marketing isn’t the only thing to blame for the rampant, conspicuous and wasteful consumerism we’re experiencing, but it has played a large role. Just as companies can create change in supply chains, the way they treat their employees and how they make what they sell, marketing agencies have a huge role to play in helping consumers genuinely shop with their values. There’s an opportunity here to use marketing as a force for social good. Marketers don’t have to lie or spin anymore. If we help companies like B Corps and other for-benefit businesses connect their Purpose with consumer values to engage customers in the purchasing process, we can change the way consumers act so when they open their wallet, they’re helping society rather than just themselves.
It’s time to make the good choice the easy choice. It’s time to treat customers as partners in change. It’s time to own and embrace our responsibility to help consumers make choices that are good for them, good for others and good for the planet.