Jerry Thomas
Jerry W. Thomas

No matter the origins of “purpose’’ or “cause’’ in marketing and strategy, the last decade has witnessed a profusion of books on the subject, and the rise of a whole industry of consultants who specialize in purpose or cause marketing.

Much of corporate America and many consumer brands have bought into the “purpose” narrative and believe that brandishing a good purpose or doing good in some way will boost a brand’s image and increase its likelihood of success.

Several studies have been published to prove, or claim to prove, that consumers are more likely to buy brands that espouse a noble purpose or support a good cause.

But the truth is, few if any brands have conducted carefully controlled experiments to determine if a purpose or cause actually provides any brand lift (i.e., an increase in sales over time, compared to the same brand marketed without a purpose or cause).

Moreover, most brands adopting some purpose or cause have not even conducted the most basic of research to determine if a purpose or cause has a reasonable chance of boosting sales of their brands. If companies are dead-set on having a brand purpose or cause, there are research steps that can help them make good decisions.

The first question is: what purposes or causes should we consider for our brand? Now, if our whole life revolves around escaping the solar system to discover life elsewhere in the universe, and we own a company that builds multistage rockets, searching for life outside of our solar system is our purpose or cause, and we need not do any further investigation or research. We have a purpose, it aligns with our business, and we have the freedom to pursue it.

If we are not so sure about a purpose or cause, or uncertain about what purposes align with our business, it might be helpful to answer these questions:

  • What does our brand mean to users and non-users?
  • What types of purposes or causes might fit, or go with, our brand?
  • If a purpose or cause seems to go with the brand, what is the rationale, the story?
  • Can the purpose or cause be linked to our brand in some powerful and memorable way?
  • Are there charities that align with our purpose or cause who might be potential partners?

Typically, in-depth interviews are the recommended research technique to do this initial investigation.

After this initial qualitative investigation is completed and the interviews are analyzed, the outcome would be a number of possible purposes or causes for our brand, along with a basic understanding of how each could be linked to (or aligned with) the brand in some meaningful way.

These possibilities would be developed into purpose or cause concepts (similar to rough print ads), so that we can scientifically evaluate them. Let’s suppose we ended up with 10 unique purpose or cause concepts, and that the evaluation indicated that two purposes or causes appear to be strong possibilities for our brand.

The next step would be comprehensive concept tests. There would be three identical (or matched) samples, carefully balanced on geography, demographics, and usage of our product category. The first sample (the control) would test our current “product or service” concept without any mention of a purpose or cause. The second would test the same product concept, but with purpose-cause A added. The third would test the control concept with purpose-cause B added.

If the differentials between the control results and the test results (A or B) are statistically significant and in favor of adding purpose or cause to the brand’s marketing mix, then it’s worth seriously considering.

If the decision is to move ahead, a final research step recommended is to test the new purpose or cause in a limited geographic area.

Again, we have a control and a test research design. Advertising and promotional spending levels would be identical across the control and test markets. We would track brand awareness, ad awareness, trial, repeat purchase, brand share, actual sales, distribution levels, etc., across all of the markets to measure the positive effects, if any, the purpose or cause brings to the brand. If these test markets confirm the positive results obtained in the concept tests, then the purpose or cause campaign would be rolled out to the rest of the U.S.

The test markets are recommended as the final “acid” test. To advertise a purpose or cause message usually takes some media weight (i.e., ad spending) away from the brand’s traditional positioning and messages. Test markets are the best way to evaluate the effects of this shift in ad spending.

A good example of a positive purpose or cause is Dawn detergent. Dawn is a powerful detergent for breaking down grease and oils, but gentle enough that it can be used on birds and animals in the case of oil spills. Dawn advertises this advantage, and donates Dawn detergent to help save birds and wildlife after oil spills. It’s a worthwhile purpose or cause, it reinforces Dawn’s product strengths, and it helps to build the brand’s positive image over time.

The addition of a purpose or cause to a brand’s marketing is a major decision with long-term financial implications. There are many variables at play and it’s difficult to accurately measure the potential impacts of a purpose or cause. A careful, test-as-you-go approach is recommended.

Do good—but be cautious.

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Jerry W. Thomas is president and chief executive of Dallas/Fort Worth-based Decision Analyst Inc., one of the nation’s oldest and largest privately owned marketing research and analytical consulting firms. The company specializes in strategy research, advertising testing, new product research, and advanced modeling for marketing-decision optimization. Thomas welcomes comments and suggestions. He may be reached by email at jthomas@decisionanalyst.com or by phone at (817) 640-6166.