The Power of Purpose: A Conversation with Dan Shannon

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Cover image for  article: The Power of Purpose: A Conversation with Dan Shannon

Purpose as strategy continues to grow in popularity, which makes it the perfect time to seek insight from strategic experts such as Dan Shannon, a partner at Purpose, an agency focused on meaningful social impact. Shannon shared his thoughts on the future of purpose, why brands need to be less concerned about their favorability, and the importance of doing over talking.

Phil McKenzie: The use of purpose has become more prevalent in branding and marketing in recent years, but the agency Purpose predates that. Tell me more about the origins of the agency.

Dan Shannon: The origin story of Purpose lives with our CEO and founder, Jeremy Heimans. Jeremy was engaged in progressive advocacy and had started and cofounded organizations [such as] Get Up and Avaaz. The vision of Purpose grew out of those success stories, with a call to action to take the lessons learned from technology and storytelling and transfer it to brand work. Purpose was created to help organizations, both social sector and private sector, figure out how to do the values-driven work of taking a stand on social issues and [scaling it].

McKenzie: With purpose being more "in vogue," has it made your work easier or more challenging?

Shannon:  Brands are seeking to answer important questions: What do we stand for? What issues do we care about? How are we making a difference? Increasingly, having the right answers to those questions is part of having a license to operate. Our work is more challenging because our perspective is that our role is not to give clients an easy answer, but rather the hard answer [on whether it's] the right thing for them to do.

McKenzie: It sounds like purpose-driven work has to incorporate specific messaging to resonate in a meaningful way.

Shannon: Quality purpose marketing campaigns are, by definition, not easy to pull off. It's the difference between a feel-good marketing campaign where everybody tweets a hashtag to show their support for an issue, but that's the end of it. What does that accomplish from an impact perspective? Maybe you get brand lift, perhaps you get some engagement, but does that make a difference in the world?

On the impact-side, if you have the resources, maybe you write a big check to a nonprofit organization. However, does that deliver against your brand and marketing objectives? Are you getting lift and engagement?

For our clients, it's crucial to think about how you do both in a way that is mutually reinforcing. We want you running meaningful campaigns and programs that are delivering real impact in peoples' lives and engaging customers in a way that deepens your relationship with them and shows [that] your brand is a vehicle for them to create a meaningful impact on an issue that they care deeply about. The best way to have consumers feel like your brand matters and [makes] a difference in the world is for your brand to matter and make a difference in the world.

McKenzie: Most organizations are risk-averse, and asking them to take a stand on social issues can feel difficult. How does Purpose manage that process?

Shannon: Brands have a reason to be risk-averse because there is real risk involved. At Purpose, we ask clients to start with the core business. If you're going to take a stand on an issue, if you're going to be active on a particular purpose, it needs to be relevant to the work that you do, the product that you make, the service you provide. It has to be more than just mitigating negative externalities that you're creating in your business model. For example, if you're a CPG company and you're reducing single-use plastic in your supply chain, that's an excellent and essential thing to do. However, it's not, in and of itself, purpose-driven because all you're doing is solving a problem that you created in the first place.

I think the risks come when you're taking a stand on an issue where you haven't made any of those kinds of improvements internally. I believe another risk is speaking out on a subject that … doesn't feel like your brand or your company has any credibility speaking on.

McKenzie: How do you deal with purpose-washing and the co-opting of purpose-driven work?

Shannon: I think it's the difference between saying that you care about something and demonstrating that you care by having made some commitments, sacrifices, and investments to deliver impact against that claim. We don't take on projects that are about saying and not about doing.

McKenzie: Do you think purpose is being driven by what people want or what brands are driving?

Shannon: In my view, it's a flywheel effect. People are demanding it, brands are trying to provide it, and then more people are seeing brands offering and saying, "Oh, that seems cool. I want that." It's a virtuous cycle led by real changes in the world — greater access to information, greater transparency, greater ability for people to communicate with each other.

In short, the public is more engaged. People don't expect to be a passive audience; instead, they want to be a participant. Even traditional marketing is moving in this direction with a lot more experiential work and strategy focused on social engagement.

McKenzie: I say that, in today's brand world, there are "no sidelines." Is silence on social issues possible?

Shannon: Silence is no longer an option. I think the challenge associated with that is, in an increasingly polarized society, we've retreated into camps. We've talked to our clients about shifting from prioritizing favorability to prioritizing depth of sentiment. Meaning, traditionally, brands have thought about how they can be broadly favorable to as many people as possible, which leads you to a risk-averse approach. The way to be broadly favorable to as many people as possible is to avoid alienating anybody. In a world where there are no sidelines … you have to pick a side. So, to our brand clients, we prioritize enthusiasm.

McKenzie: Is there a specific campaign that illustrates these ideas?

Shannon: We did a big campaign for UNICEF around the refugee Olympic team. In 2016, for the first-ever time, there was an Olympic team that was comprised of all refugee athletes — meaning they had fled their origin countries due to violence and other reasons. UNICEF is not considered controversial and primarily focuses on children's issues. Given that more than half of global refugees are children, we thought this was an excellent opportunity to align them with an essential issue in a slightly different way — which could alienate some traditional donors but raise awareness among audiences that wanted them to be more vocal.

So, we created a fan club for the refugee Olympic team that would tell stories of resilience, talent, and contribution, rather than as victims. It was an opportunity to take a bolder stance, and a more controversial stance than UNICEF had historically taken.

McKenzie: Finally, do you consider yourself to be optimistic in the light of the increased focus on purpose-driven marketing?

Shannon: I think there is more momentum building around the notion that, if you want to be seen creating an impact on issues that people care about, you have to be doing … it credibly. I am moderately optimistic that trend will continue.

I think the question is, how quickly does it continue and how much does it accelerate the trend that finds more brands being a success with this strategy? More case studies … will provide evidence that there is support for purpose being part of the ongoing brand strategy. So, I think brands are going to continue to try to figure out how to get it right. I think they see the value in doing that.

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