Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This is the third and final blog post from Mark Duval’s interview with Max Lenderman, CEO & Founder of School. Read the first part here, which addresses the evolution of experiential marketing. The second part explores brand purpose and how some brands get it wrong while others get it right. This post generally covers issues around brand purpose such as performance and new business considerations for brands and agencies.
Mark: Okay so this is a two-part question. For companies or agencies that have truly embraced purpose as part of their ethos, how can they use that to grow their business, grow their sales, acquire new business? And also are you seeing more briefs come down with a need for purpose or a campaign to extract and deliver purpose?
Read More: What Are Agencies Doing to Win New Business?
Max: Good question. Yes, so qualifying that question a little bit is a lot — almost 80% — of the briefs that we get, have a specific purpose asked. It traditionally sounds something like this: we have a bunch of brands, they all support different causes, we have a massive corporate social responsibility budget that no one knows about, that we don't know how to activate. How do we create brand growth by aligning all our different causes and our corporate social responsibility efforts into viable multi-year platforms that we could leverage to basically become more relevant in culture?
So in that regard, the ability to “commercialize corporate social responsibility,” is going to be a hot topic for the next five years. If you look at Unilever’s performances, their “purpose brands” (or “sustainable brands”), like the brands that have either been developed or repositioned in order to give back or to solve a major issue in the world, they outperform Unilever’s other brands; growing more than 60% faster. So there's already a ton of examples and a lot of Fortune 500 companies who have a billion dollars in their corporate social responsibility foundations. How do you unlock the inherent goodness of these large corporations and then how do you trickle that inherent goodness down into those brands in a cohesive, compelling, understandable way? I think that's not going to go away at all.
At the same time, if I'm a creative director or strategist at a major agency or even a midsize agency, and I'm looking at the campaigns that have been winning at Cannes — actually, this morning “Fearless Girl” won the Grand Effie for North America. If I'm looking at what work is winning and I'm a creative director that wants to be known for winning work, I'm going to start thinking hard and deep around purpose as the platform that our ideas revolve around. I'm going to think a lot harder around how do we use Domino's to solve the food deserts problems in America, rather than what's the $4.99 two-topping deal. So because I know that shit is actually getting noticed and awarded and envied I might take it in that direction. So the brief might not give me a purpose idea, or directive, but I think that creatives and strategists are invariably going down that path anyway.
And if we can continue to attract Millennials and now Gen Z into the industry, the way we're going to attract them is to say, “By the way, you're going to be able to find meaning in your work by activating large brand budgets to do good in the world.” Not: “You're going to come in and create awesome TV commercials that are going to be on the Superbowl.” Hey, guess what? A third of the Super Bowl commercials last year and the year before talked about purpose, or sustainability, or corporate social responsibility.
Related Post from Max Lenderman: Does Young Creative Talent Want to Work For You?
Mark: It's interesting because I read an article the other week, and not to spend so much time on “Fearless Girl.” But somebody who was the company behind “Fearless Girl” — and we could say McCann — but who was the company behind that and who was it for? I'd say most people couldn't name the company. If they looked into it, that company actually had a lot of issues around gender equality and pay. So it's winning Effies, its winning at Cannes, but is it a matter of the work is great but it's almost overshadowing the company it was done for?
Read Our Post: Do Creative Awards Matter for Agency New Business?
Max: Are you saying that marketing and advertising don't gloss over the truth? God forbid.
Mark: Yeah, but shouldn't we hold purpose to a higher standard?
Max: Yes. I mean we do, and you're right. So its State Street Advisors (the company behind “Fearless Girl”), but you have to understand that State Street Advisors’ target audience isn’t a general audience. Its high net-worth investors and institutional investors, and within Wall Street they are the most well-known since “Fearless Girl” happened. So in terms of answering the brief of “make us famous on Wall Street,” check that box. In terms of answering the brief of, “help us become a more purposeful company,” they have not.
Again, that's the difference between messaging advertising and strategy, so if they came to School, for instance, we would say, “Okay, you have a massive problem in your gender pay inequality,” right? “Let's look into that and how you stack up on these five factors against your competition.” Maybe “Fearless Girl” would have come out of that strategy work if we had key stakeholders from the C-suite with an intention to change it. So I totally agree with the backlash. And every purpose campaign is going to have a detractor — because no company is perfect. So there’s going to be cracks in every purpose campaign, but if the intention is right, then you can deflect and answer those cracks and that criticism in a much more authentic way.
Mark: So if there is a company embracing purpose and creating a purposeful campaign then they may be scrutinized a bit more compared to a regular advertising or marketing campaign. So they might be shining the light on themselves a little bit more than with just a regular campaign.
Max: Yeah, absolutely. Like the Stella Artois commercial that ran on Superbowl. The first question that you see on social is, “Wait a minute, why don't why don't they just donate the three million dollars that they spent on the commercial to clean water?” You're always going to find people saying, “Hey, wait a minute...” But at the same time, the answer is, “We're all-in on this, we wanted the world to know, this isn't a one-off to sell more beer and this is part of our ten-year commitment to Water.org. Oh, and by the way, here are the metrics: by running this commercial and spending three million dollars, we actually raised six million dollars for clean water.”
So there's an answer, but to your question, yes. When you go purpose, similarly to experiential, you can't control the message… Which a lot of times, in experiential you have a brand ambassador talking to a real person. That brand ambassador tells a real person to “go fuck themselves,” right, and that person goes and tweets, “A McDonald's brand ambassador just told me to go fuck myself.” There's that lack of control that permeates experiential that you have to accept because it's in the real world.
I think the lack of controlling the message and being completely buttoned up, is really the shift between what used to be hierarchical branding where we controlled the message. It's a consistent message and it's kind of like that brand pyramid. Now, modern marketing is less hierarchical and more networked, a series of coherent ideas working together that more modern brands are embracing. That lack of voice control or message control is part of being a newer brand, a more modern brand, and that's the new normal; you just have to roll with it.
Mark: You mentioned something about Unilever and they're finding that their purposeful brands are reporting, did you say three times overall performance?
Max: I think it's like 2.6 times more profitable.
Mark: So, I don't want to say that having purpose is a new thing, but oftentimes the metrics and the KPIs, like we talked about experiential earlier, in the beginning, they're a little looser. But because Unilever is having such success with their purposeful brands, are you finding that the KPIs and the metrics and the deliverables are just as stringent as if it were on a regular advertising or marketing campaign?
Max: Well I guess I'll answer that question by saying, if the real metric of a good purpose campaign isn't sales or profits, the real metrics of a good purpose campaign is social impact. The profits will invariably come if you do it right because people vote with their wallets. However, the idea of streamlining four brands that have four different causes, for example, where one brand works with cancer charities, and other brand works with sustainability charities, etc. Aligning those four brands under one purpose platform does get you efficiencies and does get you the kind of scale that will invariably translate into better performance.
So, at School when we go in to see a CMO or CEO we often say, “Okay, you want to do purpose. What's your enemy?” If the enemy is lagging sales, or the competition, or share of voice, etc., we're like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa; you've got the wrong enemy. Your real enemy should be consumer apathy, or divisiveness, and culture of poverty; you know what I mean? Like if it’s Maslow's hierarchy of needs and you're still at the food-water-shelter level, purpose probably ain't going to be your thing, right? But if you're more on the kind of actualization level or meaning level, then we can talk. So the KPIs are naturally transferred up that ladder as well, like the KPIs are that a healthier economy lifts our brand. More active kids lifts our brand, or people living longer lifts our brand. Those things are like the real true social impact KPIs that then trickle into some business performance metrics.
Mark: So it seems like it's probably easier for a newer company, an Uber or Lyft or something like that, a new economy company to embrace purpose and to really weave it into the fabric of their company. But even the older, more traditional brick-and-mortar companies can take bite-sized pieces and do some sort of programs. And you work with Hershey, that's a company that's been around for a long time; I'm not sure if purpose is woven throughout their company and everything they do. Are they looking at purpose and taking bite-sized pieces of that and having certain campaigns around that, versus waking up one day and saying all of a sudden, “We’re a more purposeful company.” That's not an easy thing to do with such a large corporation, right?
Max: No, it's not, and that's why I do say purpose is the new digital. There have been a ton of large legacy brands that 20 years ago, they didn't look at digital as a transformative power, and consequently some of them no longer exist, like e-commerce and Sears. So for those who are slow to the game, they're going to have a really hard time re-righting the ship, so to speak. And then those companies that 20 years ago were digitally first, are eating their lunch. Same now those companies that are purpose-led are going to be eating everyone's lunch 20 years from now.
In the case of Hershey, they're incredibly purposeful. The Milton Hershey Foundation and their founder’s story, in terms of all the things that he's done for orphans and schools, etc., its a massive foundation, massive. As a matter of fact, it’s the largest private foundation in North America, but no one knows about it, no one really talks about it. Certainly, there's a cultural thing about being small-town Pennsylvania; we don't chest bump over our creds. But the new CMO and the new CEO, when they came in, one of them happened to come from Unilever, looked at that and said, “We’ve got to talk about this. Like, we’ve got to raise this up. This is a huge competitive advantage; why aren’t we talking about it?” And that's why we're working with them.
Its navigating both the inertia of not talking about it for so long, versus the drive to talk about it as quickly as possible, and not repeating the Pepsi scenario of talking about it in the wrong way. That's where like the strategic deep dives and the purpose-led strategy work needs to occur in order to basically change systems and change messaging and change platforms. Very similar to how a consultancy would come in and try to change Target’s way of doing sales, and looking at all their systems and finding out how they can become more visually-led. That's our role, is helping large multi-brand organizations navigate how to do purpose in the right way.
“...purpose gives brands a long-term competitive advantage, with the brands that consumers see as having a positive impact growing at 2x the rate of other brands.”
— Kantar Consulting’s “Inspiring Purpose-Led Growth” report, via Marketing Dive
Mark: So from a new business perspective, you identified a company that has this untapped asset and this company really needed to tell their story. It's interesting because this is just not a service that you can decide to have one week from the next and throw it up on your agency’s website. Seems like there's a lot more here than adding, I don't know, skywriting or something like that.
So when you are engaging with the prospective client and uncovering that real gem within their corporation that may have been covered up, sort of fermenting. Not on purpose (excuse the pun), but they just never realized what they have. Do you find that to be a bit of a long process in order to uncover that and reveal it, and then to expand and grow?
Max: Yes, it is a long process, and the larger the entity the longer it takes. We worked really hard in the first year of School’s inception to create robust IP around that process. A ton of stakeholder interviews and research and archival capabilities and quals and quants, and really diving in deep. But also with our creative agency’s sensibility of when you see something that just sings, you're like, “That's it.” So traditional consultancies don't have that filter of knowing culture, of knowing what's hot, and what's really actionable, quickly. So it's a balancing act between really deep research, but also really quick activational ideas in order to bring that to the forefront.
That's why we're a project shop because we don't want to take on five major projects at the same time because we know how long it could take in order to uncover that job. Because we know how long it takes to corral twenty C-level and SVP-level people and to get that face time, to get that going. On the other hand, from a new business perspective, what we've seen that works the best, is again, it goes back to that intention that we don't have to ask for business.
How would you like your agency to be in the position of not having to ask for business? A.k.a. no prospecting?! It’s possible...
We have CEOs and CMOs and a lot of people from corporate communications and CSR coming to us with fire in their eyes, with that intention to actually become more purposeful and clearing the path for that. So that means we hardly ever do any prospecting anymore because we know that if we prospect and go like hey, do you want to be more purposeful? Then you tend to not get the same result as when people come to us and say, “Look, I really want to leave a legacy here.” Or, “I would turn this largess into a huge positive impact for my neighbors, how can you help me do that?” So that intentionality is really everything.
Not to get all “Boulder-y,” but intention in all relationships is everything. If it's self-serving we're probably not going to be friends. If it's truly meaningful and somewhat scary and fraught with introspective truths that you may not want to face, then that's where the good stuff is.
Mark: So it's interesting, and I can understand where, if you're knocking on someone's door you're kind of losing a little bit of that pitch if you will, from being a purposeful agency and helping them define and refine and grow their purpose. Are you using that IP, are you using some of the work that you've done and publishing content and creating content, for some kind of a lead nurturing campaign? Getting it out there in front of the eyeballs of CEOs, CMOs, through periodicals or websites or whatever it may be, or for those maybe for whom you do some sort of direct campaign?
Max: I mean it's mostly publishing in our articles, speaking, teaching, it's that. It's basically baring our soul and explaining our point of view and opening it up to the universe to reciprocate.
Read more in Max Lenderman’s post: Brands Must Give (and Take) Four Shits About Purpose
Wrapping It Up
This is the final post from our interview series on experiential marketing and brand purpose with Max Lenderman. If you enjoyed it, consider sharing it on social or forwarding it to a friend. Or let us know what you think in the comments.
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.