Marketers have two masters: the brand and the audience.

To be successful, we must meet the business objectives of the former by crafting campaigns that are going to connect with latter. In my opinion, that connection only truly happens when we not only know and understand the audience, but when we respect it, too. We’ve got to respond to what it tells us.

At The Economist Group, we recently fielded a study to our opinion leaders panel (made up of around 75,000 people worldwide) to dig into the idea of “purpose.” Brand purpose has long been a marketing byword for the broader narrative a company builds around its products and services, what it stands for, and its vision. It forms the backbone of communication to audiences.

More than 75% of Millennials say they would prefer to support a company that has an underlying social purpose.
More than 75% of Millennials say they would prefer to support a company that has an underlying social purpose.

However, given the current global political climate, we wanted to dig deeper than this and explore where companies stood on social purpose. By that, we mean committing to a course of action going beyond revenue on reputation management and having a genuine desire to have a positive impact in some way on society.

We wanted to explore to what extent consumers expect companies to “step up” and advocate for something. Finally, we wanted to explore whether a commitment to social purpose could actually have a positive impact on the bottom line — if doing “good” business pays.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we discovered there is an overwhelming expectation from Millennial consumers for brands to have a purpose beyond profit:

  • 79% would prefer to purchase products from a company that operates with a social purpose.
  • 75% are proud to be a customer of a company that operates with a social purpose.

However, the results of our study revealed that brands are feeling the pressure more widely. For example:

  • 60% of executives think consumer activism is forcing companies to authentically showcase their character in the way they operate and engage with the public.
  • Nearly three-quarters of executives (73%) believe consumers are increasingly judging companies on the humanness of their corporate character.

Think about that idea of “authentically showcasing a human character.” That can only be done with thoughtful storytelling. Among the younger generation, who are so open to aligning themselves with brands that operate with a social purpose, there is still confusion about whether companies actually care about a social cause or whether they’re just trying to sell more products or services. In fact, 87% feel it’s sometimes hard to tell.

If the brands we, as marketers, work for have a genuine position on an issue, then it’s up to us to help successfully communicate that to audiences. The potential positive outcome is clear to see.

Of course, it requires courage to take a stand. There is still a tangible fear amongst companies about sticking their head above the parapet. According to our research, less than 18% of executives see their companies as a public advocate willing to take a vocal stand on social issues despite potential backlash.

However, executives that tie operating with purpose to growth are more likely to also report strong financial performance, and they believe they are performing better than their peers. Doing good can have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Social purpose must permeate a company’s entire culture if it’s to stick. But the message from audiences is that it’s what they expect from brands today. While marketers may not be able to influence a step chance internally, they can certainly try and connect with audiences on matters that mean the most to them, and it must be done in an authentic way. That way, we all win.