Shared Value Branding: The End of Brand Marketing as We Know It?


At Unilever, a team develops partnerships with the World Toilet Organization and Vietnamese institutions to build decent sanitation in schools. Another fosters the development of a network of community caterers with grassroots partners in South Africa to fight crime by fighting hunger. At Coca-Cola, a group engineers partnerships with the Chinese government and a crowd-funding program to create clean water access for the millions of children around the country who currently drink unsafe water.

These are not CSR or sustainability experts; they are marketers, and these activities are part of their brand plans. So if you believe the job of a brand manager is to create new products and ad campaigns, you may have missed something…

Marketing today is expected to not only create value by making products and services desirable, but also to nurture purpose brands that can better the world with shared value strategies. A recent launch by Coca-Cola China shows how it totally re-invents the job of brand managers.

Less rational sense, more human sense

As humans we use two basic models to make sense of our daily lives, but as marketers we have long been stuck in one of them.

The first assumes we weigh our alternatives, and then choose what yields the most value – the perfect economist in action. We make decisions because they make rational sense. This way of thinking can be very useful in much of what has to be done in business, but when it comes to creating value with a sense of purpose, empathy and imagination, it falls short.

The second model is quite different. It assumes that people make decisions that make human sense, based on shared identities created by common passions, values, missions and beliefs. It departs from the view that people want to contribute to creating a world that they can value and that they act accordingly.

In a more social world, people have new expectations for businesses — and for themselves. They want to make their life and their consumption behaviors more meaningful, and they expect brands to help. In that context, the second approach makes more sense. For Coca-Cola, it allowed to crack a solution to a business issue that the “rational” view of not solve.

Less me, more we

When Coca-Cola tried to grow profitably its water business in China – a low margin, commoditized business, it struggled with a simple question: when all drinking waters look and taste the same, how do you build more value on your brand?

In China, 40 million kids do not have access to clean, drinkable water. Water is seen as a source of life, almost a human right. It’s a cheap, but emotional resource, so many people would feel engaged if given a chance to help these kids. Coca-Cola decided to solve this problem – and to make it a sales argument.

But Coke could not solve the issue by their own means. Part of the business problem is that water provides very little profit, so the ability for Coke to fund full-scale change would have been limited. Coca-Cola shaped the problem so that a collective solution could be put in place.

The brand team asked the Coca-Cola foundation to help develop a system that could produce clean water in villages, and put in place a few prototypes. Coke leveraged then its scale to spur a tribe into action: the government, external commercial and NGO partners, consumers, were brought together to participate in fundraising programs. Coke offered consumers the chance to donate small amounts through a QR code and online platform. They launched a higher price variant of their “Ice Dew” brand, and committed to use some of its proceeds to fund the program. They offered people to join sports events and raise funds with their friends. The advertising for the brand celebrated the exchange between a Chinese city dweller and rural children. It all made change easy, fun, and socially desirable…

The Pure Joy launch was powered by the idea that “we” matters more than “me.” It engaged consumers, and put everyone into action. The business brief turned into a movement, that delivers on purpose and profit.

Less guilt, more build

Too often, “purpose” comes with a narrative of guilt. It is a “social responsibility,” a license to make money. But it’s not guilt that people want to be part of —neither the people inside the company, nor the people it serves. They want to be part of something great, something that changes the world, even if only in some small way. They want “build” narratives.

To “build,” Pure Joy is designed to scale. Coke leverages its brand for purpose, it distribution system for purpose, and even its long-term partnerships with other companies or institutions for purpose. It crafts a narrative that many people want to be a part of, and that’s how true impact is made.

Pursuing purpose for guilt comes with the danger of creating stories without substance, without action, and worst of all, without participants. To make “Pure Joy” work, Coke’s marketers learned to work with an ecosystem of stakeholders, leverage their different interests, create engagement, design the solution with them.

But it’s not the guilt narrative that people want to be a part — not the people inside the company’s four walls and not the people it serves. No, they want build narratives, impact narratives. They want to be a part of something great, something that can change the world, even if only in some small way.

A new era in marketing?

The rise of purpose brands, it seems, is redefining the role for marketing and brand stewardship as we know it. Building purpose brands requires a new set of skills and a new set of practices; skills that focus on creating shared value for entire eco-systems, rather than on extracting value from well defined categories. But the good news is that it may turn them into the most impactful change agents of their generation — activists that leverage the power of purpose with profit, to craft for a better future for society and business as a whole.