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Social Purpose Becomes the New Social Status in Business

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A shift - both economic and cultural - is taking place. Finding one's purpose is not something happening in an ashram alone. It is happening in the boardrooms of global corporations and small businesses and in the living rooms of consumers all over the world. In an age of bonus rage, shopping malaise and social networking trumping business networking, it seems companies and brands need to be both socialized, purposeful and less self-absorbed. The same I suppose could be said of consumers.

Increasingly, research and experience are showing us that today's successful companies, brands and individuals want to engage and involve their stakeholders and friends in meeting their business, personal, and societal goals. Enterprises spanning industries as diverse as food and beverage, automobile and apparel are even creating new markets around their social purpose DNA. In fact, consumers who once believed "bigger was better" and "more was more" are now downsizing expectations and resizing their needs - less may actually be the new more and social purpose the new social status for both brands and consumers.

So, could brands and consumers actually be heading in the same direction?

Consumer Evidence Rising, New Study Shows

To gain more insight in this area, we have conducted an annual Edelman goodpurpose™ consumer study of more than 6,000 people in 10 countries for three years now. The latest findings indicate that people are now wearing, driving, eating, and living their social purpose as sustained engagement with good causes becomes a new criterion for social status and acceptable social behavior. Globally, the study found that considerably more people (70 percent) prefer to live in an eco-friendly house than merely a big house, for instance, and that 68 percent feel it is becoming more unacceptable in their local community not to make efforts to show concern for their environment or to live a healthy lifestyle.

With 64 percent of people globally also saying they would recommend a brand that supports a good cause (up from 52 percent in 2008), and two out of three saying they would switch brands if another brand of similar quality supported a good cause, the study suggests that today and going forward social purpose can be a key driver of brand building.

Consumers are looking toward companies and brands to help them help the world become a better place - in fact, 63 percent of all respondents are looking to brands and companies to make it easier for them to make a difference. This is not a trend that should be ignored. Companies that respond to rising consumer expectations that they and their brands help make the world a better place will not only survive, but also thrive in ways their competitors will not. People today are more passionately supportive than ever, yet more demanding and unforgiving, as well.

Brand Evidence Rising, Too

"Our company is an economic and social project." This quote from the CEO of Danone, Franck Riboud, not only represents an approach more companies are embracing, but one they're increasingly finding beneficial.

People today expect to be involved in positive social change, and they expect the businesses they support with their increasingly hard-earned dollars to be involved as well. Where these expectations meet, something we haven't seen before is blossoming: a real, enduring partnership between people and brands that benefits both equally. This movement toward "mutual social responsibility," in which brands, companies and people work together to effect long-term positive social change, taps into hope and may be the backbone of a better world and a growing economy in the future.

We see examples of it today - from Brita's FilterForGood program, which reinvigorated the brand by motivating consumers to reduce their bottled water waste and save millions of bottles from landfills, simply by switching to a reusable bottle with filtered water; to Starbucks' My Starbucks Idea, which lets people both suggest social actions Starbucks should participate in and then vote on which to actually put into action; to Macy's efforts to provide 10 million meals to families in need by encouraging shoppers to host dinner fundraiser parties and then matching their contributions, as well as purchase Shop For A Cause passes that support local non-profit charities.

In Europe, Shell asks consumers to participate in its FuelSave Drivers Challenge, which within its first week attracted 100,000 people to sign up and begin to learn how to drive more carefully and save fuel at the same time. Innocent Smoothies stimulates the social environment and its own bottom line with its "big knit" project designed to keep senior citizens warm in winter through sales and consumer activation. And the next generation of marketers continue the social purpose business march - from entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, who created TOMS Shoes around a two-for-one business model in which he gives a pair to a child in need for every one purchased, to 13-year-old fashion designer Tavi who sells her fashions on eBay to raise money for Darfur. The list goes on, and continues to grow.

Social Networks Fueling Social Purpose

Finally, it is the social media landscape that's providing fuel to the growing social purpose movement. As fun and prevalent as cats flushing toilets on YouTube may be, something meaningful and substantive is happening in social media as well.

The growing number and popularity of social purpose and social networking outlets demonstrate a consumer shift towards organizations and efforts making an actionable and measurable difference. Examples of these include Twitter Twestivals, which allow twitterers to join forces around a common social purpose goal; Google's Project 10100, a social purpose program that will result in the company rewarding five ideas submitted by consumers $10 million each to see them come to life; cause sites such as betterplace.org and causenet.com; one-person crusades like realhughjackman, the actor Hugh Jackman's Twitter campaign to donate $100,000 to a fellow twitterer's nonprofit of choice; and Kiva.com's invitation to let us micro-lend money to entrepreneurial businesses in the developing world.

While full-on capitalism may still be our love story (I hear you Michael Moore), a kinder, gentler, more benevolent and yet still profit-driven form of marketing and business is on the rise. Social purpose and profit may seem like strange bedfellows, but then again, who would have thought an ice-cream brand would turn a Chubby Hubby into a Hubby Hubby in support of marriage equality (even if just in Vermont)!

Will doing good ultimately be good for business and will companies, brands and consumers stick it out in the long run? The signs of success from those who do it well are there, but it will take many more years, hybrids, and windmills - not to mention more profits and fewer debts - before we know for sure.

(Disclosure: Brita, Starbucks, Shell, and Ben & Jerry's are Edelman clients.)