How mutuality helps maximise brands’ profit and social good

This blog was originally inspired by my response to the 2012 Admap competition on the future of Brand and Communications planning (my article can be found here).  This year’s prize is about whether brands can maximise profits and be a force for social good.

In my view, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ and the ethos of mutuality can really help.  By tapping into mutualistic principles, companies’ social good campaigns can help build the brand (and therefore profits) while inspiring both social promotion and social good.  It’s a win-win-win for brands, customers and society.

Mutualistic relationships in nature (like the clown fish and sea anemone pictured) are based on reciprocity and sharing value.  Each protects the other from their predators.  I believe mutuality is a powerful metaphor for shaping brand strategy and collaborative working processes….

People feel compelled to reward brands that do good because (in the words of Palaoeanthropolgist Richard Leakey):  “our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honoured network of obligation.”  

Doing social good can maximise profits by building the brand 

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that doing social good can lead to a number of business benefits as outlined in Faris’ essay.  These include improved innovation, efficiency and employee engagement to name a few.

A recent Harvard Law School Forum paper suggested that doing social good can also improve “customer loyalty, willingness to pay premium prices, and lower reputational risks in times of crisis”….AKA ‘deepening brand relationships’. 

Mutuality is based on the idea that people want to reward brands for doing social good.

Doing social good is not only an opportunity for brands but also an obligation.

Simon Mainwaring’s book and blog ‘We First’ include a number of sources (for example Edleman’s Good Purpose and Cone Communication’s Corporate Social Return trend Tracker) suggesting people expect brands to do social good.  People not only want brands to talk about their social good, but also critically they are willing to work with them to help achieve it.

Cone articulate this nicely with the suggestion that today’s brands should ‘prove their purpose’  As Cindy Gallop puts it: “shared action plus shared values equals shared profit: Financial profit and societal profit.” 

The pressure to act mutualistically is growing. . .

Brand strategy should be developed within a social-moral context.

One of the best mutualistic examples is Pattagonia.  They are a clothing brand for mountaineers.  Their ‘Common Threads’ campaign included an ad which went as far as saying ‘don’t buy this jacket’ in an attempt to drive awareness of the social impact of consumerism.  They also supply mountain rescue and encourage repairs and recycling of their products.

Their proposition is brimming with integrity.  Again, by earning credit and giving something back to the world that they operate in, they feel more mutualistic.

Mutuality facilitates ‘altruism by proxy’ and therefore social promotion

I believe that people do want to do good.  However, the daily grind of life means that it does not necessarily feel easy to do so.  Brands which facilitate altruism through social media, can tap into the latent force of people’s good intentions.  Both good causes and the brand benefit.

Examples of this include Haagen Dasz ‘Save the Bees’.  They received over half a million #savethebees tweets in one week, and gave $1 for each one.  Similarly, Chase Bank lets its fans on its facebook page direct its charitable donations.   It’s a strikingly fair trade off;  people interact and promote them in social media (over 3m ‘likes’ and counting) and they give money ($28m to date) to things that people care about.  It’s beautifully mutualistic.

Mutuality must be strategic

It’s not simply the case that brands can just do any old social good and it leads to profits.  In fact, it requires careful collaboration across departments and between agencies.   Brands have to confront how ‘credibile’ their social good efforts will seem.  They have to acknowledge the permission that people grant them.  To be effectively mutualistic means listening first to what people want, need and expect.

The example of Pepsi-Refresh is interesting since they gave away a commendable $20m in 2010 and received an amazing 60million interactions online.  However sales suffered during the period.   I agree with Bernie J Mitchell’s suggestion that the lack of congruence is what caused this (I talk about the importance of congruence in sponsorship over here).  In other words the execution of Pepsi’s admirable social investment wasn’t sufficiently tuned into the brand’s identity.  I would argue that had their social investment been somehow tuned into their celebrity pop-culture hertiage, then it would have done more to boost sales (since its relevance and brand integrity would have been reinforced).  

Mutualistic brand strategy considers the moral-social context 

It’s about working out the value that a brand should give back to society.  The more brands can ‘prove their purpose’ and ‘facilitate altruism by proxy’, the bigger the impact will be on relationships and therefore profits….

[1] R.Leakey and R. Lewin (1978) People of the Lake.  New York: Anchor Press / Doubleday