Feb 27, 2017

A Crisis of Meaningfulness?

Word on the street is that most people desire a more meaningful purpose in life.

Something we believe in and something that will make a real difference.

According to author Afdhel Aziz, who has released a new book titled Good is the New Cool: Market Like You Give a Damn’, the same is true of brands.

The premise of his book is for a new model of marketing – brands that focus on solving real problems will generate more goodwill, generate more buzz and ultimately sell more goods or services.

The book is packed with examples to demonstrate this, and some he shared during his keynote at the Holmes Reports’ recent PRovoke16 Summit in Miami.


These included Citi Bike in New York City. Launched in 2011, Citi Bike is helping residents and tourists commute around the city.

“Citi has solved a real everyday problem,” said Aziz. “Commuting in New York is not easy, so by providing this service, Citi has entered the fabric of lives in New York City by helping people get to work and travel around in a healthy and sustainable way.”

Aziz describes these efforts as more than Corporate Social Responsibility. “It’s a business model,” he said. “Citi has spent $40 million over six years, but the publicity, social buzz and brand preference shift has been huge. Citi Bike is now part of the everyday language.”

No advertising, just solving a problem.

Aside from solving everyday problems, brands can also solve epic problems.

Aziz points to Facebook’s mission to bring internet access to people living in remote areas as an example.

“That is purpose driven activation and nothing short of spectacular,” he said. “Facebook’s mission is to connect people around the world and they’re helping with the physical infrastructure as well.”

“These are way beyond CSR and cause marketing,” adds Aziz.

Making reference to Professor Michael Porter’s TEDTalk, Aziz noted that corporations have the resources to solve social problems compared to governments and NGOs.

“Corporations have all the cash and power,” said Aziz. “And by extension in this room,” referring to the influence and trusted advisor status public relations can have inside their organisation.

Jim Joseph, America’s President for Cohn & Wolfe, who hosted the discussion with Aziz, said its own research clearly articulates what consumers want.

“Consumers tell us they want companies and brands to take a stand. Social activism is a strong driver of brand growth, along with authenticity,” Joseph said. “There is a strong correlation with performance. Socially responsible brands outperform others by up to 26 per cent.”


But it’s not just consumers who want brands to take a stand. The same is true of employees, creating a halo effect.

“People showing up for work believe in the mission of these companies,” Aziz adds.

At a practical level, when quizzed on how a brand picks the right purpose to support, Aziz offered some frank advice.

“Number one is to figure out your purpose and articulate it.

“Strategy is story and it helps explain why it exists,” Aziz explains. “But it has risk. Some brands have taken risk but it hasn’t always worked.

“You can stumble in the execution, such as Starbucks and its position on race. It was an important social issue they have tackled and some with success.

“Taking risk sometimes means making a mistake and learning from it. Sometimes you will get credit for getting into the game.” Skittles was another example Aziz shared.

“But when you get it right, you can drive societal change. NBA and Target fighting for rights of transgender and a restroom to match your identity. NBA won’t take an event into a state that doesn’t support it. They took a stand despite the risks.”

Aziz’s point is neatly summarised in his book.

We are at a crossroads: either we can try to prop up the old, broken marketing model, or we can create a new model, one that is fit for the unique challenges of today.

Marketing has an image problem. Media-savvy millennials, and their younger Gen Z counterparts, no longer trust advertising, and they demand increased social responsibility from their brands—while still insisting on cutting-edge products with on-trend design. As always, brands need to be cool—but now they need to be good, too.

This is a golden opportunity for companies to change the world and remain relevant, and PR can play an instrumental role in giving brands new purpose.