Brands at risk of alienating consumers in 'social purpose' campaigns

The public won't stand for brands "jumping on the bandwagon" when it comes to 'social purpose' campaigns, Cirkle MD Ruth Allchurch told a PRCA event.

It was a key theme at the event, which was called From Storytelling to Storydoing – Should Consumer PR have a higher purpose?.

Joan O’Connor, head of brand PR at Coca-Cola, said that social purpose campaigns are now being handled at individual brand level, not just by corporate comms.

O’Connor recently worked on an initiative for Fanta in Germany; after identifying a lack of playgrounds for children, Fanta set up 100 non-branded play parks across the country. "It came from a societal gap," she said. "The whole power of communications is needed to bring that to the consumer."

However, there are a number of risks associated with this, as Allchurch pointed out. "With the advent of real-time marketing, brands want to be part of the conversation. That means being absolutely watertight with the messaging, but of course there’s a risk. The public won’t stand for brands jumping on the bandwagon."

To avoid this, Nick Hindle, McDonald's senior vice-president of corporate affairs UK & strategy north west Europe, said that the message has to be "authentic" otherwise the brand’s motives are going to be questioned.

He said it is vital to get the backing of employees first: "If you don’t get people in your organisation excited, it will never work."

The panel also discussed the difference between social purpose and CSR. Chris McCafferty, MD and founder of Kaper, referred to the agency’s campaign for Fairtrade and said: "Social purpose transcends what CSR can be. I see social purpose as a strategy, and CSR as a tactic." 

Giles Gibbons, founder of Good Business concluded that many successful brands – such as Marlboro – do not have any need for a social purpose. However, he said: "You’re more likely to be more successful if you’re known to be progressing at the same speed as society."

He also urged brands not to forget commerciality when working on social purpose comms.

The PRCA Consumer Group event took place on Wednesday at The Guardian's offices in London's King's Cross.

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