What is Marketing’s Role in the Purpose Economy?

A few years ago, I had a surreal experience at a large business development conference for marketing and ad agencies.

As someone who has spent my career marketing for social good, mixing with more “traditional” marketers was an eye-opening experience. In some ways it was exactly what I expected, and in others ways it wasn’t. While I did learn some interesting things from these business development pros who seemed to spend all of their time courting any company with a significant marketing budget, the surreal part came whenever I introduced myself.

I’d give my “elevator pitch” about how RoundPeg develops brands and campaigns for working exclusively with B Corps and other for-benefit businesses. In response I’d get a pause or blank stare as my counterpart tried to process what I’d said. By rough estimate, of the 70-ish people I met, only about 10% seemed to understand what I meant by social good. The other 90% replied with some variation of “What does that mean?”

It’s time for marketers to help make the good choice the easy choice.
Read our Manifesto to learn how.

Further explanation elicited responses ranging from “Why would you do that?” to “Is there any money in that?” and a few instances of a patronizing, “Good for you.” Precious few asked for more information. Those who did were especially intrigued when I explained the rapidly growing B Corp market. I could see the spark of opportunity in the eyes of some, though I’ll never know if any of them pursued working with purpose-driven companies.

In the past several years, we’ve seen an increase in firms marketing social enterprise or using their business as a force for good. When we became a B Corp in 2012 we were the first marketing firm in our state to certify and at that time, only a handful of marketing firm B Corps existed. Now there are more than 140. Some larger firms (not B Corps) have added practice areas for social impact companies, while others have expanded an existing cause marketing practice. I can’t help but wonder whether, if I went to the same conference this year, my elevator pitch would evoke a different response.

The increase in the number of marketing firms and other B2B services providers working with socially responsible businesses is encouraging. It signals that the movement of for-benefit business has reached a tipping point and a critical mass of companies need these services. It also signals a shift in thinking among marketers: they see that they can use their talents and skills for good. It’s not unlike the social marketing revolution that began roughly 30 years ago when marketers and behavior change scientists started applying marketing principles to change behavior for health and nonprofit causes. That’s where I spent much of my career so the parallels are difficult to ignore.

Marketing as usual only works for business as usual, and the fourth sector is anything but business as usual.

But unlike the social marketing revolution, not all firms are rethinking marketing for the fourth sector. Marketing as usual only works for business as usual, and the fourth sector is anything but business as usual (Click to Tweet!). When I see firms replicating what they’ve done for traditional companies and slapping “social good” or “purpose” on it, or when larger firms add a cause or social enterprise practice right next to their practices marketing cars and tobacco, it’s makes me a bit sick.

Regardless, I’m excited about the widespread interest in helping for-benefit companies compete in a world where doing good is not yet the norm. Change has to start somewhere. I hope to look back in another 30 years and understand this time as the beginning of a revolution in marketing altogether – one that mirrors and champions the revolution of using business as a force for good.

As for RoundPeg, we’ve been reflecting on how we can best serve these intrepid companies that are changing how business is done – how we can truly use marketing as a force for good.

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We need to challenge conspicuous consumption by changing how people make purchasing decisions.

We’ve come to the conclusion that traditional marketing of B Corp and other socially responsible products isn’t enough. We need to challenge conspicuous consumption by changing how people make purchasing decisions. Because when buying responsibly is the norm, businesses with good in their DNA will become the norm.

As marketers, it’s our responsibility to help consumers undo the damage our predecessors have done. The power has always been with the consumer. Now, we must show them that every purchasing decision they make is an opportunity to be the change the world needs. And we must equip them with the information they need to make better choices.

How did we get here?

People used to know where their food and clothing and other possessions came from. They produced what they ate themselves or bought it directly from farmers and other local producers. They knew the tailor who made their clothes and the craftsmen who made their furniture. Often, they built what they needed with their own two hands.

The onset of the industrial revolution changed that. People moved into cities, which changed how they lived, and the assembly line changed how goods were made. The origins of what we put in our bodies, wear on our backs and use to furnish our homes became foreign to us.

Modern conveniences made it so that suddenly, we had time to pursue other endeavors – so that making a meal was no longer an entire day’s work. That’s where we are today. We occupy our time with pursuits unrelated to producing food or furniture or gadgets, so we’ve lost touch with where these things come from. We don’t know how they’re made, who made them, or what’s in them and we don’t know how their creation impacted people, animals and natural resources along the way.

When we’re tired or bored of something, we throw it away. When we want to impress, we get something new. When we’re too tired to cook, we buy ready-made meals in plastic containers. We’re no longer hunters or gatherers or makers or craftsmen: now we’re consumers.

Marketing’s Role

Societal shifts changed the way we look for and purchase food and goods, but it was marketers who changed how we think about and value things. Marketing has been around for a long time — even in the “idyllic” days of farming and small town life, medicine men were hocking elixirs and contraptions to make life easier. After all, who doesn’t want an easier life?

During and after World War II, marketers went into overdrive to promote conspicuous consumption. Families moved from small dwellings in cities to manufactured suburban communities where the latest car in the driveway wasn’t just a necessity; it was a symbol of success. Fine furniture, clothes and other goods became a shared language through which people could communicate their status to one another and form connections with others like them.

Marketers recognized the void felt by the businessman wasting his days away in an office and the housewife whose sense of self depended on how nice her home was and how well behaved her children were. They tapped into traditional values and a longing for simpler times (ironic, huh?) and encouraged people desperately searching for meaning to buy. Buy NEW, buy BETTER, buy BIGGER, but most importantly BUY.

As technology advanced, corporations worked to squeeze the most dollars out of human and material resources to generate the most profit. And marketers were there to help. Claims like New and Improved or Healthy and Tasty camouflaged lower quality products made with toxic chemicals by exploited workers in ways that decimated our natural resources.

Consumers were so far removed from the origin of their purchases that they were blind to these infractions. Marketers exploited that. They tapped into values and longings to position superfluities as necessities, make the case for shoddily built products and convince consumers that obtaining the latest version was essential. They constructed a culture where a quickening cycle of waste and consumption ran rampant.

Time for Change

It never had to be this way and things are finally starting to change. Exploitation and decimation – along with the negative health effects of this toxic existence – are coming to light. People are starting to wake up. A small group of consumers are paying more attention to what they buy, where it comes from, how it’s made, what it’s made from, and whether it’s needed at all. And a growing group of companies are helping these folks buy things that are good for them, good for others and good for the planet.

At the same time, the democratization of the media and a tidal wave of easily accessible information are putting the power back into the hands of consumers, allowing us to share our experiences, recommendations, complaints and ideas. Marketers and the companies they serve are no longer the only ones with an audience.

While we may be experiencing consumers’ largest push back against blind consumerism, it’s not yet enough. The majority of consumers are still unaware of the wastefulness of the lifestyles that have been constructed for them and remain ignorant of the impacts of their purchasing decisions.

Just as companies can create change in supply chains, the way they treat their employees and how they make what they sell, marketing agencies have a huge role to play in helping consumers genuinely shop with their values.

Marketing isn’t the only thing to blame for the rampant, conspicuous and wasteful consumerism we’re experiencing, but it has played a large role. Just as companies can create change in supply chains, the way they treat their employees and how they make what they sell, marketing agencies have a huge role to play in helping consumers genuinely shop with their values. There’s an opportunity here to use marketing as a force for social good. Marketers don’t have to lie or spin anymore. If we help companies like B Corps and other for-benefit businesses connect their Purpose with consumer values to engage customers in the purchasing process, we can change the way consumers act so when they open their wallet, they’re helping society rather than just themselves.

It’s time to make the good choice the easy choice. It’s time to treat customers as partners in change. It’s time to own and embrace our responsibility to help consumers make choices that are good for them, good for others and good for the planet.

Read our Manifesto to learn how

Anne is a strategic partner to RoundPeg, offering consulting on select projects to figure out how to use marketing to help people make good choices. In her free time, she enjoys sampling obscure teas, spending as much time at the beach as possible and spoiling her darling rescue dogs, Molly and Phoebe. An impassioned communicator and people person, Anne enjoys bringing people together and offering advice to anyone who wants it [or doesn’t]. See more posts by Anne.
  • Jim Bowes

    Great blog post!
    How companies market themselves and the tools we use to do so are also part of our responsibility.
    The practice of measuring the impact of our business activities is a good way to see where we stand so we can continue to improve. But are we as marketeers of purpose driven companies also practing what we preach? Do we even have the ability to measure the impact of our marketing activities? Do we have access to the tools to market responsibly? So far I don’t think we do.
    Our tools generally are designed for the masses. We take a shot gun approach exposing as many people to our message in hopes of it being relevant to a few. Talk about waste!
    If we look at the recall rates or conversation rates of most forms of media what we see are staggering numbers. The outdoor advertising industry boasts that it is one of the most successful forms of media with a recall rate of about .03%. That means it fails 99.97% of the time! Talk about waste. TV is even worse.
    Digital sounds better but is it? How much energy is being used each day just to power our mobile phones?
    Are we even paying attention to messages as consumers? We are subjected to 3000 to 5000 messages a day!
    Just take a second and try to recall a message you saw in the last week.
    My point is that our industry has a lot of work to do. We are not innovating new ways to communicate. We are not measuring our actions and sadly we are forced to use forms of media that do not match our own codes of conduct. When are we as an industry going to embrace sustainability? And how do we reduce our waste?
    As a marketeer who is standing by your side, I’m challenging myself not poking a finger in your eye.
    However when I see a B Corp using a vinyl billboard or paper poster to talk about how Eco friendly or responsible they are I cringe at best, question their authenticity at worse. This applies to all mass media.
    We really need to take a close look in the mirror. Until we begin to find more effective ways to communicate that are less wasteful and can become part of the circular economy, we run the risks of “green washing” as well. We must hold ourselves accountable and understand the negative impact of tradition marketing practices.
    It’s about being aware, practicing what we preach and changing our own behavior as well as helping our clients change theirs.

  • Anne Boyle

    Jim, thanks for your comments – all thought provoking and provocative as usual! We’ve had some of these conversations internally about the challenge of marketing for good and the available tools and channels, especially with marketing to masses. The natural media solutions you and your colleagues offer are opening up opportunities not available before, and we’re grateful to know of them as we take responsibility for past and present ills of marketing and work more with B Corps and other for-purpose businesses. I suspect that if we’re successful in encouraging conscious consumerism that more and more of our audiences will question the practices of the industry, and more, less harmful (or ideally not at all harmful) solutions will develop. We’re seeing some of this pressure have an impact with wind powered server hosting, solar charging for mobile devices and (relatively) more eco-friendly printing solutions. But it’s not enough and I’m not seeing the conversation in the marketing industry overall, or even in the sustainable branding conversations that are picking up momentum.

    You said it best – and we take up the challenge – to “be aware, practice what we preach and change our own behavior as well as helping our clients change theirs.”

  • Darrell Glasco

    Good article. I am definitely a believer in the need for more marketing efforts supporting the Purpose Economy, Next Economy, Conscious Economy, etc. When I first came across your article I was hoping for some examples of how marketing has played a role in the ‘Purpose Economy.’ I believe that marketing is essential in the quest to help people make purchasing decisions that are good for them, our communities and our environment (which also supports the companies doing good). I know this is a complex issue, but there is a need to educate people about the good and bad consequences of their purchase decisions. Marketing plays a key role in influencing behavior, and behavior is the driver of our decisions. What would be helpful is how can marketing overcome the influence that has pushed so many people to purchase things that are not good from them from companies that treat us, our communities and environment poorly.

    • Anne Boyle

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’ll find examples of how marketing is playing a role in the purpose economy throughout our blog articles. But there certainly aren’t enough examples yet! That’s part of the reason we’ve made a commitment to use our talents and skills as marketers to help consumers make choices that are good for them, good for others and good for the planet.

      If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll read our manifesto – http://bit.ly/1ULlI93 – where we explain how marketing can change the customer relationship from transactional to transformational – creating customer – company partnerships for change.

      We completely agree that people need to be educated and informed about the impact of their choices. Ane we’re realistic that education is not enough so we need to use the power that marketing has to influence behavior to make it easy, fun and rewarding for consumers to make good purchasing decisions.

  • Jim Bowes

    Dear Darrell,

    Let me share my thoughts on this. (From my mobile phone so will be a bit scattered :))

    First, we need to remember that this movement is very young. If you apply the human behavior principles of innovation adoption (this is a business innovation) than you can see that only the innovators 2.5% and early adopters 12.5% of the population are adopting this new innovation. Yet we all too often market to the masses most who are not ready yet.

    Another challenge we face is to be proud of our accomplishments and be allowed to boast a bit about them. We know how to boast about products but we aren’t very good about boasting about our positive actions. Add to this the fact that the community who is involved is also hyper critical and even cynical towards companies that make any claims (not to mention high educated, vocal and social media savvy). In short, we tend to attack those who are at least making the effort to improve while ignoring those doing nothing. There are many business cases of brands who lost billions because we beat them up for not going further. Is this encouraging better behavior? I think not! That said, we the community need to take responsibility for slowing the changes we are demanding.
    If the very people we are trying to please with our good actions are not willing to or find boasting (telling our stories) to be distasteful again, we are really making it difficult to succeed in our missions.
    In my opinion, the more authentic a business is the easier it should be to market them successfully. Aside from a little push, some companies don’t even need traditional marketing. Tesla comes to mind. At least in Europe, they don’t need paid marketing, their fans are doing it for them for free!
    So the question is how do we encourage authenticity which requires real leadership and a very open mind not to mention awareness? How do we help give a little push and how do we as marketeers innovated new ways to market!
    Several years ago Patagonia created a campaign encouraging people NOT to buy their products for Christmas. A bold move that was deemed to fail by the advertising industry but actually was a huge success and generated massive brand value. Here I am as your peer telling you how great they are 5 years on. Can’t pay for that value.

    Winning hearts works better than hocking products but it goes against everything we as an industry have been taught! We as an industry need an attitude adjustment.
    Daring to do things differently and most likely failing here and there takes amazing courage. Companies like RoundPeg are taking the difficult route choosing to challenge not only themselves but also their clients. Everyone in RoundPeg is talented, could work in any agency, get paid more and have a nice cushy career but they have chosen not to because they have a purpose!
    Challenging clients? Read making them sometimes uncomfortable or needing to work harder. Traditional business suicide. BRAVE!
    Are they being rewarded by for purpose companies? I don’t know but my guess is not nearly enough. Why? Because most marketing people like everyone else are risk averse (if it fails I could be fired so I will do what is traditional- no risk) and they are lazy!
    Yes, even in B Corps. Easier just to do what’s been done for decades.

    We need awareness for sure but we also need support instead of cynicism and that means we the early adopters need to understand our role of influencing the masses; early majority late majority =68% and this requires we change our attitude. This does not mean blind faith. This does not mean we should not question but if we just beat up those authentically trying new models, we are killing the very movement we deeply believe in.

    Note: I am not working for RoundPeg and my comments are based on assumptions not facts. But knowing what I know about this company I am pretty confident they are not a business as usual business. But then again they are not your usual business! Also, I need an attitude adjustment as I am quick to point my finger as well. Criticism is easy. Finding a solution is hard!

    I believe we will figure this out. I believe we will need to innovate ourselves before we can really solve this. I’m hopeful that consumers will become more aware in general. It will take time. We can only hope it doesn’t take too long but that’s as much in the hands of consumers as it is in the hands of marketers! We are all in this mess together. The great news is we are also incredibly open minded and willing to share what only 10 years ago would have been our valuable intellectual property. Big step in the right direction!

  • Anne Boyle

    Aw, shucks, Jim. You have us blushing over here! I’m so glad this post is sparking discussion and I wholeheartedly agree with your insights. In fact, we’re planning a post on authenticity in the near future that I think you’ll enjoy given your comments.

    The only place where I want to offer an alternate perspective is about focusing on marketing to the early adopters and innovators. It goes against diffusion of innovation theory, but I think for really changing the way people think about what and how they consume, we need a dual approach of 1) leveraging the innovators and early adopters as brand ambassadors to spread the word and influence peers and 2) making it easy and normative for the masses to make good decisions. We can’t afford to wait for the innovation to diffuse according to theory!

    We’re proud to be among nearly 1,700 (and growing) certified B Corps that are not “a business as usual business” – it gives us hope and courage every day to keep up the good fight. And we want to help those who market to consumers to make the changes we’re discussing here. There are some good examples – Patagonia’s “don’t buy this jacket” campaign is a perfect one – but unfortunately not all for-purpose companies have yet realized that they need to be as daring and innovative with marketing as they do all other aspects of their business. With colleagues like you, we’re slowly making that change. Thanks for your support and friendship.

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