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3 Purpose-Marketing Lessons From Innovative Brands


Quick: Think of some purpose-driven brands. I’ll wait.

I’ll bet a bunch of you thought of Patagonia.

The outdoor clothing and gear seller started by rock climber and adventurer Yvon Chouinard in 1973 weaves environmental activism into the very fabric – and even the bylaws – of the company.

You probably read about Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad that ran in The New York Times on Black Friday 2011. It asked people to focus on buying less – on the biggest shopping day of the year.


But that’s old news. Why did Fast Company put it 6th on its list of the world’s most innovative companies in 2018 and move it to the top spot for the social-good sector?

Let’s explore some of the innovative ideas that earned Patagonia its place on the lists and look at ideas from other companies that earned nods for their social-good activities. But first, some context around why these ideas resonate today.

What is purpose-driven marketing?

Some people use the terms purpose-driven marketing and cause-related marketing interchangeably. I think of purpose-driven marketing as the more encompassing term, which revolves around a company’s greater purpose (read: beyond selling products).

#Purposedrivenmarketing revolves around a company’s greater purpose, says @KMoutsos. Click To Tweet

When CMI founder Joe Pulizzi wrote about this a decade ago, he cited marketing executive Jim Stengel’s definition, that purpose-driven marketing is “about defining what a company does – beyond making money – and how it can make its customers’ lives better.”

At the time, Joe equated that definition to content marketing. The past 10 years have seen a spike in the number of companies willing to describe their purpose not just in terms of making their customers’ lives easier or better, but also in making the world better.

Cause-related marketing typically describes a company’s support for a cause, often within a defined campaign that might involve a nonprofit partner.

I found this graphic, from a presentation on cause marketing by Lincoln Electric’s Craig Coffey, useful for understanding the range of corporate social responsibility and involvement. Cause-related charitable giving shows up at one end of the continuum and purpose ingrained into company culture resides at the other.

Consumer expectations and brand standing

Not only are companies increasingly willing to speak up for causes they support (see the brand standing trend Rohit Bhargava noted earlier this year), but consumers practically demand that they do.

The 2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study found that “78% of Americans believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well.”

Among the other findings: Two-thirds of consumers surveyed say they would switch to a product from a purpose-driven company, and 68% say they would feel more willing to share content with their social networks from purpose-driven companies than traditional companies.

68% say they would be more willing to share #content from purpose-driven companies via @Cone study. Click To Tweet

What to learn from innovative purpose-driven brands

Patagonia’s obviously a leader in purpose-driven marketing and on Fast Company’s social-good segment. But it’s far from the only company to study if you’re looking to advance your cause-related or purpose-driven marketing efforts. Here are the lessons that stand out to me.

1. Up your game by helping customers participate in your mission

Patagonia’s opposition to many recent White House decisions is well documented. In December, Patagonia said it would sue to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to drastically reduce the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. And it famously changed its home page to a stark black image with the message “The President Stole Your Land.”


Not every retailer would take such an aggressive stance (let alone legal action) on a politically charged issue. But Patagonia, a privately held company, benefits from the clear vision and support of its company founder and the years of credibility on environmental issues with its customers.

In fact, one big lesson from the company’s 2018 activities is encouraging and enabling customers to take action in support of their beliefs.

A new digital platform, Patagonia Action Works, is an “activist hub,” CEO Rose Marcario told Fast Company, where customers and grant organizations can solicit donations, post events, and ask for volunteers.

.@Patagonia Action Works is the brand's activist hub for donations, events, & volunteers. @KMoutsos Click To Tweet


Takeaway: You know your customers. You know what they care about. How can you help them get involved in a meaningful way?

2. Make shared values visible in your marketing and your service

Instead of setting fees for some of its financial services, up-start Aspiration made a splash by allowing customers to decide their fee. And it donates 10% of what customers decide to pay to charity.

But what caught Fast Company’s (and my) attention this year is Aspiration Impact Measurement, a score it assigns companies based on how they treat employees and the environment. This tool is designed to help customers align their spending habits with their values.

As Aspiration customers make purchases, the scores of the stores are aggregated to form a personal impact score. The idea is to help Aspiration customers make spending decisions in line with their personal ethics or beliefs.

In this way, the service continually reinforces the shared goal of the company and its customers: to “make money and make a difference.”


Takeaway: Look for opportunities to remind customers of the values you share every time they engage with your brand or use your services.

Look for a chance to remind customers of the values you share every time they engage w/ your brand. @KMoutsos Click To Tweet

3. Report on the difference you’ve made together

Fast Company praised Ripple Foods for its innovative use of pea proteins to create a non-dairy milk palatable to “non-vegans in the mass market.”

In other words, Ripple isn’t going after people who’ve sworn off animal products. It’s trying to convince milk drinkers to use its non-dairy alternatives – for health or environmental reasons.

What impressed me, though, is the annual report the company prepares for customers. In the past two years, Ripple founders created Our Progress, Your Impact, which summarizes the carbon savings, water reduction, and sugar avoidance the Ripple choice has made in the course of a year.

.@RippleFoods calculates carbon savings, water reduction, sugar avoidance based on consumers’ use. @KMoutsos Click To Tweet


Takeaway: If your customers’ selection of or use of your product and services have made an impact, calculate and share how much it has meant to the cause.

What a difference a purpose makes

“Ripple is built on the truth that even the smallest actions can have far reaching impacts.” Aside from being a great play on the company name, that line could easily apply to the concepts of cause marketing and purpose-driven marketing in general.

Not every company can or should go as all-in as Patagonia. But working toward a common goal or a shared set of values with your customers creates an emotional link.

How does your company approach corporate social responsibility? Have you found it’s made a difference in your relationships with your customers? Let us know in the comments.

Want guidance in developing your content marketing purpose (for your brand or your career)? Register today to attend Content Marketing World Sept. 4-7 in Cleveland, Ohio. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute