Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is the second of three blog posts from Mark Duval’s interview with Max Lenderman, CEO & Founder of School. Read the first part here, which addresses the evolution of experiential marketing. This post primarily focuses on brand purpose and how some brands get it wrong while others get it right. The last post will cover brand performance and new business considerations for brands and agencies adopting a purposeful approach.
Mark: Let’s talk about some of the purpose stuff that you're doing. Because it sounds like — especially when you mentioned empathy — there's a lot of purpose and experiential that go a bit hand-in-hand. It seems like there's been quite an evolution of experiential. Years ago, it may have been, “Let's have that one event.” But then you want to extend it through digital and then be able to measure it and so it's really more involved. And now, many people are demanding an experiential side to their marketing. So what about purpose? Have you found companies demanding or wanting to weave in purpose into their experiential, or is it just that it’s a natural fit? I guess it would depend upon their brand, but how have you seen that evolve and expand?
Max: So for me, I think experiential is the best way to articulate purpose and so they go very well hand-in-hand. Like it's the difference between the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner ad, where they tried to show Pepsi's purpose and standing with the Black Lives Matter movement in a TV commercial, versus a brand like Dick's Sporting Goods simply saying, “we're not going to sell automatic rifles anymore.”
So talking about purpose and messaging purpose tends to be really, really dangerous and almost beyond ineffective; almost “reactionarily” negative. Acting on your purpose in the real world seems to be the way that most successfully transitioning brands tend to do it. So this is the simplest way of creating a bridge between experiential and purpose, is “Buy One Give One.” Or creating a brand-led foundation that, like an Airbnb, does right in terms of housing refugees. Even Stella Artois, by selling chalices and all proceeds go to Matt Damon's Water.org charity organization. Those are all manifestations of doing things in the real world that are purpose-led.
The bridge between purpose tends to land on the experiential side of the equation a lot more often and a lot more effectively than TV adverts or print editorials, or full-page takeovers in the New York Times. It's how you act in culture that people tend to react to, rather than what you say about yourself when it comes to a purpose lens. So we call it, and Colleen DeCourcy, the chief creative officer at Wieden+Kennedy, she calls it human-centric media. So if you want to activate or talk about your purpose you usually need to use human-centric media, which is working with people or working with the media that people use to share things or to take action, which tends to be digital and social.
“So digital-social-experiential is the trifecta of human-centric media and that's where purpose truly comes to life.”
Mark: So the Pepsi example is interesting. Years ago, when “being green” was the thing, there were green products and everybody wanted to be green, but then there was a “greenwashing” and it didn’t really scratch below the surface. It was someone just kind of putting the veneer on of being green when nothing about their company or their business practices or their products was actually green. Are you seeing that now, because experiential and purpose are definitely top of mind?
Are we seeing beyond brands like Pepsi where they tried to do “purpose,” they did it really poorly, and they paid for it. But is it just a matter of a bad execution, or do people start looking at their company and saying, “Not only did your campaign fall flat, but you really don't have the right to promote yourself in this manner because your company doesn't act accordingly?”
Max: I think greenwashing and the Pepsi example are manifestations of bad intention rather than bad execution. If your intention is to create more shareholder value and profits by talking about being green, you're opening yourself up to a lot of mistakes. If your intention is to re-green the planet, and then you choose your business practices and your business partners to get to that, then you become purposeful.
So in Pepsi's case, their intention was to sell more Pepsi; it wasn't to insert themselves truly in the race conversation the way Starbucks does. So it's a signal of bad intention, and intention is everything when it comes to purpose. If your intention is to sell more shit and you're going to do it through a purpose lens you're probably going to fail. If your intention is to help others, then you'll probably be successful and then selling more shit will come down the line.
Mark: Going back to greenwashing, there were so many companies getting into it and then it just really became a watered-down phrase and it lost a lot of its meaning. But do you think that because Pepsi did what they did, they may have kind of stopped some of that same behavior from some of these companies that were thinking of embracing purpose?
Max: Yeah I definitely think it scared a lot of CMOs, and really the shame of it is that Pepsi does do a lot of really good stuff. Like they're creating zero carbon bottling plants and 100% solar bottling plants and they're working hard in female leadership realms and stuff like that. If they pushed into that realm and produced creative work around that, I think they'd be a lot safer.
I think what they really did and where they failed was in two big ways. Their intention was off, and their execution by hiring Kendall Jenner who gets paid [an estimated] $400,000 per tweet, who has absolutely no credibility or authenticity to be inserted in that conversation and then creating such a kind of tone-deaf, racially stereotypical plot line to it. Then being so kind of derivative about giving a cop a Pepsi in the way that that woman gave a flower to a cop [at a Vietnam War demonstration, but which most viewers attributed to a more recent Black Lives Matter event], just all those things added up to a really bad idea.
I do think a lot of CMOs probably looked at that and said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Are we opening up ourselves to too much criticism?” That's where I think School (and not to be too self-serving about it) that’s where we come in. Our approach is let's get the strategy right, let's get under the hood and see the full picture, the whole story before we go out into the world and talk about purpose. Let's really find an authentic expression of a brand or a company's role in making the world a better place first. And then go craft the campaigns around it rather than kind of this knee-jerk jumping on the cultural bandwagon thing that Pepsi did.
Mark: So, do you think Pepsi has washed off that stink? We're still talking about it and that was over a year ago. So it's still pretty fresh. I know Brad Jakeman, who was responsible for that is no longer with them, I don't know if that was part of the reason for his departure or not. But it's a year later and it has been pretty lasting, people still remember it and they're still using it as an example of what not to do. I mean, do you think Pepsi is going to be tarnished with that for a long time to come?
Max: I think so. I think they are going to be a lot more gun-shy in terms of jumping into the space. At the same time, I think what they've also realized is that the work came from its internal agency. I think they realized that they were probably drinking their own Kool-Aid a little bit too much and want to take a step back from that.
I'll counterpoint it with what Starbucks did just a little bit earlier than the Pepsi thing. They wanted to create a conversation around race and they had those special cups made and it didn’t go well for them, they took a lot of heat. And the executive chairman, Howard Schultz, came out and apologized and said okay, we were a little too quick to jump into this. Yet a year and a half, two years later they're closing down all their stores this week to have implicit bias training for all their employees. So just because you kind of missed the mark a little bit and open yourself up to a little criticism, to some of the more robust and fearless brands out there that isn't a deterrent, it's actually an imperative to do more and to get smarter about things and to continue the conversation.
So a lot of it comes down from leadership as well and I'm not sure if Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, if she has the same kind of appetite for criticism than Howard Schultz does. So a lot of it does come down to leadership, a lot of it does come down to the ability of some fearless action on the part of the top showrunners, to take a stand today to push it.
Mark: So it's interesting about Starbucks, as you mentioned, a year or two earlier they made some strides and may have missed the mark. But do you think their hand was maybe played a little bit in the sense of shutting down their stores. I mean they had to do something and that's a pretty bold move. I guess time will tell whether it works out well for them or if they're going to get a lot of skeptics about it just being a PR move. But they couldn't have done nothing, correct? I mean so is this just a continuation of their commitment to purpose, that they had to do something as bold as shutting down the stores for a day?
Max: Yeah I don't think they had to. I mean they handled that from a crisis management perspective in terms of getting involved in working with the city of Baltimore. Being very forthright about their role in things, taking responsibility for some of that stuff. I think they handled it quite well. If I was a crisis management / PR consultant, I'd be like, “Yeah, you did all the right things.” I didn't think they had to. But because they've already started that conversation and wanted to be part of that conversation a few years ago, I think it was almost a positive for them to do that.
It’s like the saying, in times of crisis there is opportunity. I think it was a great opportunity for Starbucks to do something bold and brave and it certainly hurts the bottom line in terms of all those stores closing down. To me, it is actually quite brave.
“Brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation increase of 175% over the past 12 years, compared to the median growth rate of 86% and the 70% growth rate for brands with a low sense of purpose.”
— Kantar Consulting’s “Inspiring Purpose-Led Growth” report, via Marketing Dive
Mark: I think as far as what Starbucks is attempting to do, if their intentions were poor then they probably would have done nothing and it would have been obvious that it was just more of a ploy to generate revenue, versus truly sticking with their commitment about race and educating the masses. So I really thought it was a good move on their part. Are you still involved with the Pencils of Promise, just to switch gears a bit?
Max: Everything that we do from a fundraising perspective and what the interns work on, a lot of it is finding ways to raise more money to build schools with Pencils of Promise. So we're still fully committed to the Pencils of Promise mission.
We put our commitment to Pencils of Promise in everything that we do, from when we do a process called Night School where we do rapid ideation for nonprofits and startups, who don't have massive marketing budgets. And all we do is ask them as much as you can afford for the work that we're doing for you, just donate to our Pencils of Promise page. So by us doing pro bono work for companies and organizations that we totally believe in and are purposeful, they in return “pay it forward” by donating to building another school. So we've kind of created this small little ecosystem of us helping others in order to help Pencils of Promise.
Related Post from Max Lenderman: The Four Must-Have’s of Brand Purpose
Mark: Purpose is obviously — for the conscientious consumers — it’s on the top of everyone's mind. Do you feel this is going to carry over, much like I spoke earlier on going green and greenwashing, do you think purpose will continue to hold its value and that the conscientious consumer will continue ten years from now, or are we going to be on to the next big thing?
Max: Well I'll answer it this way, and let's just talk about the U.S. market. I don't foresee a political tool for societal problems. On a macro level, the function of government to take care of its citizens is becoming less and less viable. So brands, from a capitalistic and democratic perspective, are going to have to step in. In that regard, I don't see that brands acting to help their consumers in an active way is going to go away, because there's just a fundamental need for it. So I don't think that the idea of corporate social responsibility, nor the idea of purpose-led branding is going to diminish.
Do I think that more and more brands are going to get into it and the waters are going to get muddied? Absolutely. I think more because of the fact that there's going to be a deep consumer drive and deep consumer demand for brands to actually do more for the world than just suck out shareholder value. Which brands are going to be doing that well is yet to be determined, but I do think that they will be judged on a certain level for their purpose in culture more than they have been in the past. So their relevancy is not going to be judged on just their marketing or just on their share value; their relevancy is going to be judged on what they're doing for people.
We’ll be publishing the final post from our interview with Max Lenderman in an upcoming post, which will delve into performance and new business aspects of brand purpose.
Max Lenderman is the CEO & Founder of Boulder-based School, founded in 2013 as a “purpose-led” agency. School recently rebranded as a strategic consultancy to better reflect its combined agency-consultancy DNA, now focused more on strategy than execution. Lenderman is also the author of Experience is the Message: How Experiential Marketing is Changing the Brand World, widely considered a must-read book on the topic of experiential marketing.
Image credits: nail brand purpose ©; greenwashing: © iStockphoto/mrod