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What Is Social Purpose Anyway?



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What is Social Purpose? And how does it differ from CSR or cause marketing? These are questions I’m being asked a fair bit recently, so I wanted to attempt to bring some clarity to the subject.

Social Purpose. Brand Purpose. CSR. Cause Marketing. How confusing is it all?

Well, it’s confusing because it’s evolving. It’s evolving according to market demands and expectations.

Let’s start with CSR, given it’s probably been established for the longest out of all of these.

CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility is an organisation’s commitment to contribute responsibly to society. It can encompass a range of things from sustainability efforts and ethical behaviours to support for non-profit partners. It’s a self-regulating model, so it’s entirely up to the business what they do, how they do it and to what degree they do it.

The philosophy around most companies' CSR activities is based on the idea of “profit first” and then determine what can be allocated to give-back. One of the problems around this philosophy is if budgets need to be cut, guess which is one of the first to get hit.

Cause marketing is defined as the alignment of a for-profit brand with a cause to unlock social and brand value. It should not be confused with CSR or a company’s efforts to
be a good citizen. Cause marketers are unapologetic about working to extract commercial value from a cause marketing program – just as much as they are focused on creating positive social impact for the cause they support. Dulux’s Surf Club project is a great example of cause marketing. Their partnership with Surf Lifesaving Australia involves a campaign promoting their giving - in this case the offer of 100 litres of free paint to every surf lifesaving club in Australia every year. It’s been going since 2012. Dulux provide the paint and a licensing fee to SLSCA. Surf Lifesaving allows Dulux to leverage their equity. Win-Win.

Brand Purpose is defined as a reason for a brand to exist beyond profit. Great Brand Purpose aligns the purpose with the business’ product or service in a way that gives it a clear point of difference and inspires its marketing, product development and innovation. Brands like Nike and Apple have done this brilliantly.

Some brands have managed to take their purpose into a place where it has a positive societal impact. For example Dove - a brand that for many years has been helping women to redefine the concept of real beauty, through its marketing campaign and by actively funding self-esteem workshops for girls.

That’s still Brand Purpose, but it also blends with a Social Purpose.

The Social Purpose label is a more recent construct. It’s been driven by changing expectations of employees and consumers, championed by Millennials. They expect business to take the lead and to take actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the communities they operate in.


Highlighting some of the stats in this infographic:

The majority of people think that business is as accountable as government for improving their lives.

Plus 81% expect more from their expenditure than the acquisition of products and services.

Putting the established brands on notice, 80% of people are willing to buy a product from an unknown brand with strong social and environmental credentials.

And so we’ve seen the rise of brands with a Social Purpose. To be utterly clear, this isn’t about giving back once you’ve banked your profits. It’s about using your business as a vehicle to create positive impact in society.

Some businesses have been doing it for a long time.

Patagonia for example, who led the 1% for the Planet movement. Since 1985 they have awarded over US$89 million in cash and unkind donations to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups.

They’ve recently re-crafted their purpose succinctly and compellingly: We’re in business to save our home planet.

Patagonia don't see themselves as an apparel company. They see themselves as environmental activists.


The business is the vehicle for their activism. It drives fierce employee attraction and engagement, new product innovation (including taking them into food produce) and customer education and empowerment.

Last year their global CEO Rose Marcario took the US$10 million the company saved in Trump’s corporate tax cut and committed the full amount to environmental groups.

Salesforce is another company with Social Purpose baked into their DNA.

Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO famously stated “The business of business is improving the state of the world”. Salesforce’s 1-1-1 Model drives their purpose and their organisation.

1% of Salesforce’s equity is given to local causes;

1% of their product is donated to non-profit organisations and

1% of Salesforce’s employees’ time is given to communities via volunteering projects.

Social Purpose places positive social impact front and centre of an organisation’s goals, right alongside profit. There are numerous businesses large and small that are integrating Social Purpose into their business and their brands. When this is done strategically, it has enormous power - not only in creating the positive changes that society is crying out for, but also in energising a business by capturing the hearts and minds of its people, customers, prospects and the wider public.


If you'd like to learn more about Social Purpose and Cause Marketing, my book "Path To Purpose" reveals the secrets of brands doing well by doing good.

You can buy it on Amazon (Paperback and Kindle versions). Also available at most other online book retailers. Alternatively if you'd like a free pdf copy, visit The Cause Effect and scroll half way down the home page.

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