The notion of “doing good” is no longer the captive domain of charities and brands’ efforts to align products with worthy causes. So-called “prosocial behaviors” are popping up as important activities in the daily lives of Millennials and Gen Z. In the world view of digital natives, making a difference in the community is an important part of a healthy, well-rounded life. To get underneath what’s going on here and why it matters to business and brands, I asked Ann-Marie Harrington, a partner at Embolden, about what the research is telling us and how brand leaders can put it to good use.
Jeff Fromm: What were the key things you learned in your research?
Ann-Marie Harrington: We were surprised to discover such a strong connection between “doing good for others” and a person’s own well-being. Of the thousands of people we surveyed, 92 percent reported that reflecting on their own social impact and charitable activities made them feel better about themselves. We also were impressed with other studies that showed a correlation between “doing good” and better health. For example, the data tells us that “prosocial spending”—spending money to benefit others—shows positive signs of increasing happiness. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and Harvard Business School recently found evidence that “how people spend their money” plays a role in happiness; specifically, those who “spend money on others report more happiness.” This shows up in adults around the world, through both physical and mental benefits. The “glow of giving” appears even in toddlers. It’s not just giving money to charity that makes you feel good, either. In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon, 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure. Other studies have found a health benefit from as little as 100 hours of volunteering a year.
Fromm: How has the concept of “doing good” or being a purpose-driven organization evolved?
Harrington: Giving to charities topped $400 billion in 2017. That’s a lot of money. Still, it’s only slightly more than 2 percent of GDP, which is where it’s been for almost half a century. At the same time, social consciousness has gone through the roof. What this means is that purpose-driven organizations are no longer dealing with a one-dimensional paradigm of doing good. Instead, the social impact footprint for contemporary organizations and brands has expanded exponentially to include a wide range of prosocial behaviors enjoyed by today’s influential generations. Through our hundreds of interviews and experiments in real-life situations, our team observed that philanthropy has come to mean the full range of social impact behaviors, including not only giving to charities, but also caring about health and wellness, volunteering, serving on boards, purchasing products that support a cause, recycling, donating food and clothing, marketing favorite causes, sharing with friends and family, and celebrating at community events.
Fromm: What do brand leaders need to consider when building a purpose-driven strategy?
Harrington: Prosocial behaviors are not a one-size fits all. Each person interprets “purpose” differently in their lives. This means brand leaders need to understand their target consumers before getting too far down the road with building a purpose-driven strategy or campaign. Our researched uncovered “consumer archetypes,” which we derive from the mix of social impact behaviors most preferred by a particular consumer. For example, some consumers are “activators” as it relates to purpose, which means they will respond best to messages from brands that demonstrate a “change-the-world” approach. Other consumers are “investors,” who are more concerned with bottom-line social impact factors such as supply-chain integrity and fair labor practices. Another type is the “connector,” who is most likely to gravitate to brands that clearly communicate enthusiasm for purpose and frequently share examples of real consumers interacting with the brand through purpose. So, the upshot here is that brand leaders cannot treat a purpose-driven strategy as a surface-level exercise and assume all consumers will like just because it’s good. “Good” means different things to different people. That is coming through loud and clear as today’s social impact culture mindset takes over.
Fromm: How will employee engagement impact the execution of the strategy and what are some best-in-class examples?
Harrington: Employee engagement is often the best place for a brand to start a purpose-driven strategy. Our research showed a highly negative employee reaction to purpose-driven strategies that the workforce believed were “corporate cram down” efforts, meaning the employees perceived that the marketing teams had cooked up a plan to engage consumers and then forced them into it as an afterthought. That doesn’t work! Instead, it’s a good idea to bring employees into the strategy-building early. This is easier to do these days than it used to be, because most high-growth companies sponsor community engagement programs to do good in their communities and engage employees. We would ask, are companies fully understanding their own employees’ mindset and affirming the good that is already happening? Answering that question helps generate enthusiasm and momentum for the overall brand-purpose strategy, which then is built from the inside out. Employees are more likely to embrace corporate-led brand purpose initiatives when they believe the company cares and validates what’s on their minds as it relates to their own prosocial behaviors. We’re really impressed with what Honeywell is doing with its approach. We also like to see smaller companies embrace employee-driven brand purpose strategies. EPR Properties is a great example.