Defining a Higher Purpose to Build Brands of the Future: A Conversation with David Aaker on His 18th Book
Prophet experts discuss how to build future-ready purpose-driven brands.
Prophet’s vice chairman and branding expert, David Aaker, has launched his latest book, “The Future of Purpose-Driven Branding: Signature Programs that Impact & Inspire Both Business and Society.” Following his recent books on portfolio strategy and the creation of a winning sub-category, David’s 18th book discusses how organizations can build lasting purpose through the creation of social programs. We sat down with David and Cecilia Huang, a partner at Prophet, to dive into some of the themes and insights mentioned in his newest book and their implications for brands in China.
Why did you make this the theme of your 18th book? What are the leading market trends you see that indicate brands are becoming more purpose-driven?
David Aaker: A dominant force is the fact that employees, especially the younger cohort, want more out of their professional life than increasing profits or even building insanely great products. They want to be proud of their firm’s efforts to make society better. Some customers also want to connect with firms that inspire with their social programs. Another factor is that social problems like climate change and inequality are so visible and so serious that the help of businesses is needed. Government cannot do it all. Finally, social programs can give energy and an image lift to businesses, which is sorely needed.
Cecilia Huang: I’ve found these themes to be especially poignant in the China market as well. A survey among young people showed that 79% of the respondents felt the urgency to take action to build a better tomorrow. In turn, they also show appreciation towards brands that give back. For instance, the sportswear brand Erke gained significant popularity overnight among young consumers thanks to its generous donation pledge in response to the Henan flood in 2021.
In addition, like their global counterparts, many young Chinese professionals who have started their first jobs begin to evaluate whether the potential employer’s values and culture align with their own before fully committing to the opportunity. How to internalize and motivate employees with a higher purpose has become a key challenge for today’s businesses. Thus, defining a compelling and effective purpose is paramount for every organization and will have a profound impact on the business inside and out.
How should companies find a purpose that’s meaningful and differentiated?
DA: A purpose that encourages social programs and creates a supportive culture can be very helpful in explaining to employees and others that the business cares about helping society with the serious issues and problems it faces. It is critical to show commitment to the effort by the CEO and other leaders. It is the organizational culture, beliefs, values, priorities, behavior and management styles that determine how the organization and its employees view and act on issues and options that come before them. A well-thought-out purpose can play a key role.
Sometimes a business purpose is broad enough to include social programs. For example, CVS Health is about “Helping people on the path to better health”. This guides its business but also provides a home and a direction for its social programs. Tencent promises in its mission to create “Value for Users, Tech for Good,” which is incorporated into its ESG programs. Some of its key focuses include improving the accessibility of technology for elders and promoting scientific innovations through the Xplorer Prize.
However, in most cases, companies need to develop a social purpose that is separate from a business purpose. A business purpose (or value proposition) can guide and communicate the business model and operation. The social purpose can then focus on the type of social objectives that the business has created. When unconstrained, both can be free to be more complete, more forceful and more credible. They should be complementary, even overlapping, and have staff and programs that interact and even intertwine.
CH: It is also wise for companies to consider the shared values unique to the local culture and social context. In China, people strive to live a better life – to eliminate poverty and create opportunities for everyone. Therefore, consumers expect businesses to think beyond just “donating money” and get involved by devoting their capabilities and resources to solving societal issues. This can be done through a commitment to infrastructure developments, or by creating open platforms that empower the people.
We had the pleasure to interview Xin Yi Lim, the executive director of sustainability and agricultural impact at Pinduoduo, and were deeply inspired by the tech leader’s sincere commitment to driving agri-tech innovation and empowering farmers. Another great example from China is Baixiang Food. Earlier last year, it was reported on social media that one-third of Baixiang Food’s employees were disabled, winning the struggling company enormous support.
What is the role of the signature social program?
DA: With the purpose in place, there are three strategic thrusts or action plans (Figure 1) that will represent the future for firms that strive to move beyond being relevant to being in a leadership position in the purpose-driven age.
- Attack society challenges with signature social programs that have inspiring, credible brands.
- Integrate the signature social program into a business
- Build inspiring, credible signature social brands
A branded signature social program is needed to represent a social purpose and to impact a visible social need. The brand is critical because it guides, inspires and communicates. Without a branded signature program, the “social effort” tends to be grants, volunteers and energy goals. These often also tend to be unfocused, hard to communicate and the same as other firms.
The signature program should also elevate the business brand—adding visibility and energy, an image lift and opportunities for employees and others to be engaged through volunteering. When that happens, the program benefits as well gaining an endorsement and access to resources including volunteers and a communication budget. It is a win-win.
Salesforce, for example, has a signature program called the Pledge 1% in which it devotes 1% of the company’s equity or profits, 1% of products and 1% of employees’ time to society’s good. The program, which was put in place at the launch of the firm by Marc Benioff, now has over 10,000 companies that have joined worldwide. The result is a point of pride for employees and an amazing image lift for Salesforce, especially among those 10,000 firms that have signed on. In the words of March Benioff, “It’s time for a new capitalism — a more fair, equal, and sustainable capitalism that actually works for everyone…”
For all this to work, the signature program needs to have a strong brand, a brand with high visibility, a respected image and employees and customers that are engaged. Some paths to brand strength are to form brand communities, create signature stories and to brand your unique appeals or attributes.
How should international brands adapt and evolve their purpose across different regions, given there might be different social challenges?
DA: Unilever’s Lifebuoy sets a great example of adapting its social purpose for different countries. Lifebuoy was introduced in 1894 as a hygiene hand soap to fight cholera. Drawing on this legacy purpose, it developed the “Help a Child Reach 5” program of improved handwashing in areas without clean water. It has since reached its target to help more than one billion people across the world develop good handwashing habits.
By collaborating with different NGOs and responding to specific problems unique to different places, Lifebuoy has set up different programs around the world. Its largest programs in Indonesia and Vietnam are a great example, which work in partnership with government organizations to reach mothers with hygiene education. In some of the poorest countries across Asia and Africa where people are at risk of trachoma, a preventable blindness, it has partnered with NGO Sightsavers to adapt schools’ handwashing program to include face washing. When communicating its social programs, Lifebuoy also takes into consideration different local cultures and carefully designs its stories in the most compelling way. One of Lifebuoy’s most moving films tells a story about a young couple’s interactions around a tree. It was later revealed that the tree represents the couple’s lost son, as it is an Indonesian tradition to plant a tree for every child that is born for their health and prosperity.
CH: It is also important for companies to identify a social purpose that’s anchored in universal values. Brand purposes spawned by these shared values are the most authentic and resonant and are easy to amplify among vast audiences. International brands can define a higher-level purpose that’s rooted in one or two of these shared values and then translate it into more concrete social programs based on the unique cultures of different regions.
In order to articulate complex social themes, storytelling is key. And social programs are rich sources of emotional stories that connect. Creating signature programs that inspire employees, customers and society at large is key to building purpose-driven branding that is meaningful, impactful and lasting.
You can contact David Aaker here to interview him for your next podcast or article.
Contact Prophet today to see how signature programs and purpose-driven branding can be a part of your company’s broader ESG strategy.