Media owner spotlight: The Economist’s approach to brand content in the era of social purpose

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Audience expectations around brand purpose are impacting the ways in which publishers work with advertisers, according to The Economist Group’s Mina Seetharaman.

To explore the importance of brand purpose as a genuine driver of business performance, The Economist Group launched a survey of over 1,400 executives across more than 100 countries. Nearly a third (31%) of respondents were of C-suite seniority, while 57% work multi-national corporations.

The Social Purpose study, launched this summer during Cannes Lions, discovered that 70% of respondents believe it is vital that the company they work for “operates with a social purpose”, and that such credentials will be imperative for recruitment of future talent. However, the majority of those surveyed believe there is a gap between the words and deeds of their employers.

Other key findings include:

  • Over three-quarters (78%) of respondents agree that too many companies talk about operating with social purpose without investing in long-term initiatives
  • Only 63% believe that their own company has a strong commitment to social causes
  • Nearly half (47%) want their employer to take a “more visible” stand on issues impacting society
  • Millennial and Gen Z respondents were mostly likely (84%) to believe that companies talk rather than act on social purpose
  • The next generation of employees will actively “seek out” companies that play a greater role in social change, according to 74% of respondents.

WARC spoke to Mina Seetharaman, The Economist Group’s EVP, Chief Strategy and Creative Officer, to discuss how marketers should amend their approach, and what the research findings mean for the way in which publishers engage with advertisers.

What motivated The Economist to commission research on brand purpose?

This topic isn’t a new one. It’s certainly one that has come up [in]discussion with our own clients for a while now. The conversation has evolved to two places. The first is, yes, [potential]backlash. That backlash grows in the distance between your declared intentions and the authenticity of your actions. If you talk a good game around social purpose but don’t actually act on it, that’s where the backlash is. The other piece is a question – is it purpose or profits, or can it be purpose and profits? Nearly half [48% of respondents] said companies that operate with purpose have a competitive edge over companies that don’t. Half is not insignificant, [but]purpose-driven work is not an excuse for not having a valuable, benefit-driven product in the market. You need both. That’s not to say that you can’t put money towards issues that you care about. If you happen to be a company that believes really strongly in LGBT issues, but you make cell phone chips, there’s no reason [you can’t]. Accenture is a good example of taking a really strong position on LGBT issues, for example, but it’s not specific to its core product offering. They’re consistent about that behaviour in the larger cultural space, and that’s fine. Where people object most is [when companies state], ‘We really stand behind name-an-issue,’ and then only come out once a year to hang the flag.

Did the findings largely tally with your expectations, or did any of the results surprise you?

I don’t think they were particularly surprising, and they were actually relatively consistent from region to region. Where we saw some of the bigger gaps and disparities was between men and women. Women have a stronger view on some of these things. One example is the idea that it’s important [they]work for a company which operates with social purpose: 68% of male respondents said yes, versus 87% of women. Certainly, as you get younger, people are a little more sceptical around whether or not companies are investing in the long-term [and], personally, I’m not entirely surprised. I think there’s a challenge with short-termism in the marketplace right now. Authentically-driven purpose initiatives don’t yield results within three months. It’s who you are your core, like the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ by Dove, and its focus on women’s self-esteem and women’s empowerment. That’s a multi-year, decade-long initiative. That’s just who they now are as a brand.

What are the lessons for brands and marketers?

Authenticity is number one. If you’re doing this for a quick gain, or you’re not operating from a position of authenticity, [then]you’re not going to succeed. Number two is whether or not it could be possible to [achieve]purpose and profits. Do they have to be dichotomous? Companies do this in different ways. Maytag, for example, has a great programme called Care Counts. If you can figure out a way do meaningful work, it doesn’t necessarily have to sacrifice the product that you sell. I always go back to The Lorax, that Dr Seuss story: if The Lorax had been thinking about his own business and its sustainability in the long term, he wouldn’t have chopped down all the trees.

Shouldn’t brands be aware of the likelihood of cynicism from industry, consumers and some employees as well?

It’s like anything, right? If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Think of your consumers or employees like friends. If you tell a friend over and over again, ‘We’re going to invest in this, we’re going to do this,’ and you repeatedly don’t do it, your friend stops being your friend over time, or at least they stop believing you. If you say you’re going to make the commitment, make the commitment. With social media, that backlash propagates really quickly. I do think that there is a big difference between an honest mistake and someone being disingenuous. If people feel that you’ve behaved authentically and tried to do the right thing, again, the goodwill derived from a good brand character carries you a lot longer than if you just try to capitalise on an issue.

What does this mean for content brands like The Economist, and the ways in which you work with advertisers?

By our very nature, we are a mission-driven company. We were founded in 1843 to protest what we thought were unjust Corn Laws, of all things. It’s not a story that resonates in the same way today, but free trade and an open society is at the core of who we are. When we think about the publication and marketing, The Economist is a kind of ecosystem: something like Open Future, for example, [is based on]the idea that to continue as a civil society, we have to relearn civil discourse. That is at the core of who we are editorially. In terms of how advertisers engage with us, we try and steer our clients towards best practices, especially in the content marketing space. We understand what our audiences will engage with. I have, on occasion, been in meetings where a client has handed me another company’s branded content, and said, ‘Will you do something like this?’ and I say no. They’re shocked [but]everybody draws their line in a different place. I just know that they wouldn’t get very good traction with our readers, because for them that doesn’t feel authentic. We recently released another piece of research called Cracking the Content Code. We analysed about 50 content marketing programmes to better understand how [they]perform. Ultimately, the benefit that you get from working with a publisher brand is that they have a really good understanding of the psychographics of their audience. Our readers expect quality, whether it’s from our editorial team at the newspaper or from our branded teams on the commercial side.

This article first appeared in www.warc.com

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