The fifth law of cult branding is defined as:
Study after study has shown that today’s college students – Generation Z – are a socially-conscious generation, with their commitment to social good influencing everything from their purchasing decisions to their career paths. One study found that 76% of Gen Z respondents said they have made a purchase to show support for the issues that the company backed.
But, it’s not just Gen Z. Over the years, many companies have created loyal fans through their commitment to a social mission. One of these pioneers was Patagonia. The outdoor clothing company is well-known for its commitment to sustainability and fleeces made from recycled plastics, but the company also supports a number of other social initiatives. They pledge at least 1% of their sales or 10% of their pre-tax profits (whichever is more) to environmental grassroots groups. Since 1985 they’ve donated over $100 million to these organizations.
Whole Foods was started in Austin, Texas to bring organic and natural foods to the public. They have championed sustainable wild-caught fish, animal welfare rated meats, and built economic partnerships with the developing-world communities that supply their products. To some fanatical Whole Foods customers the brand has become like a religion – hence the nickname “Holy Foods.”
The eyewear company, Warby Parker, has a “buy one, give one” initiative, and has distributed over 5 million pairs of free glasses. Through their program and partnerships, they help train individuals in over 50 countries on how to administer eye exams and then sell glasses at a low cost. And, in an interview with Inc., co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal named their social mission as “the No. 1 reason people want to come work for Warby Parker.”
An example of a local company doing good is a restaurant based in Columbus, OH called Hot Chicken Takeover. It has defined its mission as, “It’s about our people.” In addition to an extraordinary community of customers, HCT provides jobs for men and women who need a fair chance at work. No matter the circumstances — homelessness, previous incarceration, or other barriers to employment — HCT is focused on the future and is dedicated to offering team members meaningful benefits, such as financial stability, personal growth, and professional development.
Lastly, LEGO – a toy company rooted in plastic products, is aimed towards a more sustainable future for its company. LEGO partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to help source more responsible materials for its toys, and in 2018 released a line of legos that is made entirely of sugarcane. Also, in 2015 LEGO pledged to invest $15 million over the following 15 years to reduce its carbon footprint. As a part of this initiative, 100% of the energy used to create the bricks comes from renewable wind power.
Companies can align their social missions to their business practices and create a win-win for all. Customers tend to remain loyal and connected to a company that is doing good and is a socially responsible community partner. In turn, the company attracts high-quality associates that embrace its social causes, and the money or products are diverted to people and communities in need or benefitting the Earth’s environment.
In the last decade-plus, we have seen companies ramp up their focus on being socially responsible. Even if your company cannot match the efforts of Whole Foods or Patagonia, there are clear lessons for all of us:
- Focus On Relevancy – You need to find a cause that makes sense with your business. Giving away glasses makes sense for Warby Parker, so it clearly ties into their business model. Whole Foods championing sustainable food practices makes sense given their relationship with large suppliers. Find the cause that makes sense within your business model where you can have an impact in your industry and to your broader stakeholders.
- Fewer and Bigger vs. More – We often see companies attempt to participate in a large list of socially important causes. While we would never recommend that a company pulls back participation, it is worth mentioning that there is a limit to how many causes a company can reasonably support and still make an impact. We recommend focusing on where you can make a significant impact before adding more causes to your mission. LEGO is a good example of being focused, having an impact, and then building out its mission with deeper and more meaningful initiatives.
- Be Genuine & Long-Term Minded – These initiatives need to be a part of your mission and annual planning exercises. This cannot be an exercise in “window dressing” or a bland corporate responsibility program. Find causes that motivate your employees and your customers – only then will you be on the right track. You also need to be invested over a longer time horizon to develop the initiatives and capabilities you will need to have a meaningful impact.