Oh, Mary

Product Is the Cause

October 22, 2018
Patrick McGuire

I recently met with the CEO of a leading global cosmetics company over dinner.

“To me, empathy is an important brand driver for your portfolio,” I said.

“But there’s a lot of complexity to making money,” she replied. “Our customer cares about price and innovation.”

But empathy and economics are not mutually exclusive. And, as we continued our meal and we enjoyed our roasted cauliflower sliders, the idea that women’s empowerment and the business of beauty would look even better as one powerful campaign began to take hold.

Advertising great Bill Bernbach once said, “The magic is in the product. No matter how skillful you are, you can’t invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist. And if you do, and it’s just a gimmick, it’s going to fall apart anyway.”

Where today’s communications executives fall apart is by walling off the brand mission of a company from product promotion. If, for example, you’ve created a new analytics solution for e-commerce that makes merchants more productive, that, in fact, is a cause. If you want to magnify and enlarge the scope of that cause, offer it to women or minority owned businesses for free. Again, the product is the cause.

Traditional product drivers—price, quality, assortment—shape the new trust paradigm for cause marketing. Good purpose publicity makes people feel better. I would argue that products inspired by sustainable problem solving engender goodwill and create lasting value in society.

Haters question Walmart’s employee and supply chain practices, and express dismay that the company continues to thrive. They don’t understand that Walmart is one of the world’s great retailers. What makes it great is relentless adherence to a clear ethos. For Walmart, “Save Money. Live Better” isn’t a tagline; it is a statement of purpose. It is a rallying cry to bring fresh produce to people who can barely afford shelter.

As good purpose marketers, it is time to refocus on what fosters healthy growth in any company:  product innovation. That means influencing product development. It no longer means burnishing brand image with corporate giving as a way to inoculate against criticism, or worse, to generate sales.

PR too often struggles to communicate a company’s primary mission, which is to sell great products at an affordable price.  What’s a soft drink executive to do?  Retire her product portfolio in favor of some trendy alternative? No. But she must continuously reformulate her products and ask the consumer to join her on a journey of transformation.

New data shows business must lead in social change as governments and media fail mainstream consumers. To do that, we must serve the sustainable growth and profit interests of the more enlightened company.  For the unenlightened, we must summon the courage to challenge the status quo.

New generations of consumers don’t trust marketing, which means they don’t trust marketers. Are we obsolete? No to that, too. But changing our focus in the way we communicate, from direct response and mass advertising to open dialogue, means that PR must increasingly engage in the product development journey. We must advocate for breakthrough research and development for the future, so that we can survive, and thrive, as a society.