Marketing & Communications

Brand social engagement is not a school assignment

A few months ago business media circulated a reprint of an interview that Patagonia’s CEO Ryan Gellert gave to the Swiss service NZZ am Sonntag – and it caused a stir, even something like a shrug. Patagonia, they said, here’s a brand that says enough to corporate greed, doesn’t want to grow, probably doesn’t want to make money anymore either, wants to save the planet, weaves clothes practically out of ideas and hope for a better tomorrow, even their labels are politically engaged.

I read the comments with interest. Gellert obviously wasn’t lying, he was coquettish a bit (the “vote assholes out” labels he supposedly learned about from the media), and he chose his words masterfully (“I’m not saying we won’t grow at all anymore. But at this point growth is no longer our goal”), he simply put a Band-Aid on our industry’s corporate hangover and lack of sense.

Most of all, however, he described the purpose of the Patagonia brand – strong, distinct and consistently built in every possible area. What has been read by many as charity and mission is actually a redefinition of business purpose. Patagonia can and wants to produce less (but not necessarily sell cheaper after all), have full control over sales channels, and be relevant to a specific audience that it knows a lot about.

As a result, lines form in front of Patagonia stores, and their second-hand clothes are not easy to buy, and if they are, then certainly not for a penny. Everyone wants to be a part of this appealing world, a brand that skillfully creates an impression of inaccessibility, of not caring about profits – this is something new.

Meanwhile, Byron Sharp worries that missionary brand purpose will lead to communications that sound like a 12-year-old’s school project – “buy this brand because it will help children in Africa” and boring campaigns about the same thing. Indeed, if we reduce it to this, brand purpose in communication will be identified with what is naive, repetitive, resulting from a strong desire to follow a trend, or even worse – dishonest or based on green-washing.

Meanwhile, formulating a brand purpose, which will not only benefit the brand, but also be ethical, and thus achieve a higher, missionary purpose, is not a task for a 12-year-old, it is not easy or quick, and rarely succeeds if it results from a “spurt” and a desire to stand out “on the back of an idea”.

First and foremost, a brand should have a core brand purpose that defines the purpose of its existence (beyond generating profits). What value is it supposed to bring to the lives of its audience, and what is that value based on? When we think of strong brands – like Nike, Lego, Apple, Ikea, for example – it’s pretty easy to formulate their brand purpose in our minds, and that’s because it underpins everything these brands do, everything we’ve heard from them for as long as we’ve known them.

Ikea’s brand purpose is “to make everyday life better, for many people”. It is a capacious idea, carried out primarily by selling furniture and accessories with an attractive design and prices so low that many people can afford them. However, it is possible to derive a brand purpose that is mission-oriented – tailored to the circumstances, the needs of the brand and the audience segment that Ikea cares about reaching.

For example, on the occasion of the past Black Friday, Ikea announced a “Give Back and Profit” campaign. People could bring unwanted Ikea furniture to the stores and receive a refund card in return, and the store would put it up for re-sale at the Circular Hub. Does this type of campaign “sell” in a direct way? Probably not, but it achieves a number of other goals – it allows people to join the BF narrative, without a price war, but also without the moralizing “we don’t discount our products and they are not eco-friendly at all”, it communicates quality in a classy way (the store accepts its products and organizes their resale), it builds loyalty (refund cards). Is it very original? No, this type of campaigns are also taken on by other brands, although rather outside this category, but – above all – it is part of the brand purpose, cleverly connected with the product and contributes to the achievement of image goals.

Another example – Ikea, in cooperation with the Foundation “Dajemy Dzieciom Siłę” [We Give Children Strength], addresses the problem of exclusion among young people by creating special expositions in stores, where in rooms dedicated to teenagers one can listen to recordings with confessions of bullied kids. Does this campaign sell? Again – probably not, not in a direct way, but it allows to reach a specific segment of recipients (parents of teenagers and teenagers themselves, future customers), to enter into a dialogue with them, and also to build mental availability. The importance of building mental availability has been pointed out by none other than Byron Sharp – it is the ease with which the consumer will recall our brand at the shelf or when entering the category consideration process, it depends on the quantity and quality of memory structures that the brand will build in the recipient’s consciousness in the course of the relationship. IKEA has high mental accessibility – when we need a table, we think “IKEA”, but this means that it is not easy for the brand to build further memory structures, it has to create new, not obvious contexts, also in young recipients who do not have a number of associations and memories associated with the brand.

This type of activity is possible if the base is secured – in the case of a mass brand, range activities that build awareness and support every stage of the purchasing process. Missional” campaigns, on the other hand, have a chance to achieve specific objectives, reach selected segments of the audience and build new mental structures of accessibility, but in order for this to happen the mission must derive from the basic brand purpose,

In the case of the YES campaign (which recently become the subject of industry discussion), this process did not take place; it is difficult to find a vision of the brand responding to the needs of a mass audience here. However, it would be a pity if we were to conclude on this basis that communication based on mission and sustainability makes sense, because the importance of such a message will continue to grow, even if it takes decades to reach a mass scale. Let’s not equate campaigns based on thoughtful observations, flowing from a brand’s DNA – with those stemming from a desire to tap into a trend or scandal, or to stand out at any cost. This is what YES wanted, in its difficult and competitive yet generic category, with a dominant major player who year after year effortlessly appropriates the key sales period for himself (as if to spite him – even if they parody him, it will only help him). What to do? Be different from him, counter, and so, as King Julian used to say, quickly, before it gets to the point.